Washington Insider -- Friday

Defining Healthy is Hard

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Urge White House to Leave RFS Alone

A bipartisan group of 23 senators is urging the White House not to change which companies must comply with the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

The letter, spearheaded by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., tell President Donald Trump that "such changes are unwarranted and indefensible." The letter stressed that making the change would undermine the incentives built into the program and potentially lead to chaos as the market adjusted. "This type of change would not only wholly undermine the intent of the program, but would also result in a massive, costly, time-consuming shift in compliance," the letter noted.

The letter follows efforts by refiner Valero and refinery owner Carl Icahn, a special adviser to President Trump, to alter who the obligated parties are going to be relative to the RFS. Icahn, a majority shareholder in oil refiner CVR Energy, is looking to get this responsibility passed on to the biofuels industry. Valero and other refiners want to redefine “obligated party” to mean the entity that holds title to the fuel immediately prior to sale, moving it upstream to biofuel producers, blenders, and distributors.

Parties on both sides of the policy debate are waiting to see how the Trump administration will go on this and other biofuel issues.


Agricultural Trade Policy Concerns Discussed at White House

Farm group lobbyists met at the White House Wednesday with three Trump administration officials to discuss the groups’ trade policy concerns. Representing the Trump administration: Gary Cohn from the National Economic Council (NEC); Ray Starling, the White House agriculture advisor; and trade adviser Andrew Quinn.

The Trump officials asked those in attendance to provide a list of recommendations for maintaining and improving trade relations either via the Food & Ag Dialogue for Trade advisory group or on their own. The meeting lasted around 45 minutes.

Groups represented at the White House meeting: the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, Corn Refiners Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, National Grain and Feed Association, National Oilseed Processors Association, North American Export Grain Association, Southern Peanut Farmers Federation and USA Rice.

Washington Insider: Defining Healthy is Hard

Politico is sort of musing this week as it reports that FDA officials, food and beverage companies, nutrition scientists and consumer advocates all agree that the agency’s standards for applying the “healthy” label aren’t up to snuff. This is mainly because some of the foodies’ “stars” like almonds, salmon and avocados sometimes don’t make the cut, while chocolate pudding and Pop-Tarts do.

So, it seems, like health care, better definitions of foods are difficult and creating “enforceable” definition is an especially complicated challenge--as was evident during FDA’s first public meeting on the issue recently. The agency was told it must answer fundamental questions before it can start the rulemaking process, such as what it wants the new standard to accomplish, Politico says. Not everyone agrees.

Is the goal to shift Americans’ diets toward better eating patterns? Reduce consumption of specific nutrients or foods that are deemed harmful? Encourage manufacturers to reformulate their foods? Or all of the above?

Many attendees urged FDA to be flexible in its definition because nutrition science and consumer attitudes toward healthy eating are constantly changing. But some broad ideas about the way forward were offered — namely, that the new definition of “healthy” needs to consider food groups (fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, dairy and lean meat) as well as nutrients (sugar, salt, fats, protein). Right now, the regulatory definition focuses on specific nutrients, ultimately leading to grocery store aisles being packed with foods low in fat but high in carbohydrates.

It’s not that the participants didn’t try in a number of ways. For example, Kristin Reimers, director of nutrition at ConAgra Foods, outlined a tiered approach based on food groups to encourage: the more a product contained those items, like fruits and vegetables, the more flexibility it would receive for the amount of nutrients to limit, like salt and saturated fat, it could include.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest also put forward seven criteria for defining “healthy,” ranging from excluding foods that contain more than a few grams of added sugar and ensuring sodium limits align with the FDA’s voluntary reduction targets issued last year for food companies.

KIND Snacks helped get this whole fight started, after FDA sent it a warning letter about the “healthy” claim on their nut bars. KIND Snacks presented four ideas, such as ensuring that processed foods have a “meaningful amount” of ingredients that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans consider part of a healthy eating pattern.

Well, it seems that “healthy” is a term that may never be defined specifically or objectively. It implies that consumption of a product has a universally beneficial, unlimited impact that probably cannot be verified—so, defining the term likely is not just difficult, it probably is impossible unless a completely arbitrary definition is applied.

So, it is reasonable to ask what economic or social benefit comes from claims of social attributes for food products like “natural” or “healthy” or “integrity,” among others. In many cases, the courts have been asked to consider such definitions, and turned to the agencies for help. However, some food advocates that have struggled with the issue are suggesting that food labels be limited to specific, definable and provable characteristics — since leaving consumers to puzzle over just what benefits they can expect from a product with a “healthy” label — and a higher price — may mainly add confusion to the sector, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN’s Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com