WASHINGTON, April 5, 2017 – Scott Gottlieb, President Trump’s nominee to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said at his confirmation hearing today he is receptive to the idea of extending the deadline for food manufacturers to make changes to the Nutrition Facts panel.
Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, asked Gottlieb whether he would consider postponing the Nutrition Facts label deadlines, citing industry concerns about a lack of needed guidance to implement the changes, and another, later deadline to meet requirements of the GMO labeling law passed last year.
Gottlieb said he’d be “delighted” to work with Roberts on the issue. “I’m philosophically in favor of trying to make sure we do these things efficiently, not only because it imposes undue costs on the manufacturers if they’re constantly updating their labels,” but because “it does create confusion for consumers if the labels are constantly changing.”
“So, you want to try to consolidate the label changes . . . as a matter of public health, so the information’s conveyed accurately and efficiently to the consumer,” Gottlieb said.
A coalition of food industry groups sent a letter last month to newly confirmed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price asking for an extension of the Nutrition Facts label deadline from July 2018 to May 2021. The Center for Science in the Public Interest obtained the letter and posted it online today.
“It is mind-boggling that the food industry is fighting transparency and consumer information even though that’s exactly what their customers want,” said CSPI President Michael F. Jacobson. “Not only is industry undermining the public’s health – it is undermining its own credibility.”
At the hearing, Roberts said, “There’s a great deal of concern that the FDA has not provided the guidance necessary for compliance.”
The groups’ letter said the same thing. “With only 16 months left in the implementation period, FDA has yet to issue final guidance on how to define and properly calculate two common food ingredients: dietary fiber and added sugar,” said the heads of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Corn Refiners Association, North American Meat Institute and about a dozen other groups.
The food associations said the GMO disclosure rule is due to be published July 29, 2018, three days after the compliance date for the Nutrition Facts label changes.
“This means that only three days after over 715,000 covered food and beverage products are required to be in compliance with FDA’s (Nutrition Facts Label) rules, industry must again begin the expensive and time-consuming process to redesign labels and related materials and relabel their products to come into compliance with the biotechnology disclosure rule,” they said in the letter to Price.
GMA spokesman Roger Lowe said the cost to comply with the Nutrition Facts Label changes would be about $2 billion; the GMO law’s requirements would cost another $1.7 billion. Lowe said the cost is lower for the GMO labeling requirements because not as many products are affected.
“The current compliance deadline does not sufficiently account for the time, resources, and complexity involved in label changes of this magnitude,” the groups said in their letter. “While a two-year compliance timeline may have been sufficient for the original Nutrition Facts panel rules issued in the 1990s, the food and beverage world is much more complicated today. According to Nielsen data, 400,000 new products have been introduced since the early 1990s, which substantially affects the ability of manufacturers to change labels within the same timeframe allotted more than 20 years ago.”
But Jim O’Hara, CSPI’s director of health promotion policy, said the Nutrition Facts label changes come with two deadlines: July 2018 applies to companies with annual sales of $10 million or more; those under that threshold will have an additional year.
“Ninety-five percent of the companies are covered under that (July 2019) date,” O’Hara said. “The notion that industry is being rushed just doesn’t hold water,” he said.
O’Hara also said that the industry fails to mention the benefits of the Nutrition Facts changes, which could be as high as $78 billion over 20 years, according to FDA’s regulatory impact analysis.
GMA’s Lowe said that “manufacturers are in full support of nutrition labeling as a way to transparently communicate important information to consumers and are working diligently to comply with the revised regulations,” but they “want definitive direction and guidance from FDA in order to implement the revised labeling regulations, with a compliance deadline that ensures our member companies have final guidance upon which to rely and time to make the major label changes.”
Also at the hearing, Gottlieb appeared to agree with Roberts when the senator said he was concerned “that the agency has not prioritized the agency’s mission to protect the nation’s food supply and instead has focused on nutrition policies.”
“How will you focus on core FDA duties such as implementing the law that Congress passed rather than agenda-driven nutrition policy guidances we saw with sodium and added sugars?” Roberts asked Gottlieb.
“I do think we need to focus on core mission and make sure we’re achieving what Congress intended in terms of protecting and promoting the public health,” Gottlieb said. “I think (the Food Safety Modernization Act) was a significant advance in terms of giving the agency authorities it needed and the resources it needed to ensure the food supply is safe, and my mandate is going to be to make sure FSMA is implemented in a proper way and that we’re striking the right balance with respect to that implementation.”
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