Washington Insider -- Friday

New Obesity Data Disappoint

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

FDA Seeks Public Comments on Use of the Term 'Natural' on Food Labels

The Food and Drug Administration wants input on the use of the term "natural" in the labeling of food products, including foods that are genetically engineered or contain ingredients produced through the use of genetic engineering.

Currently, there is no formal definition for the term which, some say, has caused consumer confusion, and has given rise to consumer class litigation about the labels on foods ranging from tomatoes to snack chips to granola bars.

"We are taking this action in part because we received three citizen petitions asking that we define the term 'natural' for use in food labeling and one citizen petition asking that we prohibit the term 'natural' on food labels," the agency said in the Nov. 12 Federal Register.

In explaining the motivation for the request, FDA noted its receipt of three Citizen Petitions requesting a formal definition for the term "natural" (submitted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Sara Lee Corp., and the Sugar Association) and one Citizen Petition asking that FDA prohibit use of the term "natural" on food labels (submitted by Consumers Union). The agency also noted its receipt of multiple requests from federal courts seeking FDA's views on whether foods containing genetically engineered ingredients or foods containing high fructose corn syrup may be considered "natural."

The FDA cited budgetary constraints and higher priorities, and said if it were to formally define "natural," it wouldn't likely do so in the context of private litigation.

FDA invites comment on nuanced issues such as whether manufacturing processes should be considered in determining whether a food may be called "natural"; whether and how consumers compare or confuse "organic," "natural," and "healthy"; and whether the use of genetic engineering should influence the applicability of "natural" terminology.

The FDA said it's working with the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service to also examine the use of the term in meat, poultry, and egg products. FDA acknowledged that FSIS definition of "natural claims" considers the degree of processing that the food undergoes and provides examples of "minimal processing" and "severe processes."

FDA also said they are considering other areas for coordination with USDA.


FSA Giving Some Farmers Chance to Shift County for ARC Payments

Farmers with land under one farm number made up of land in more than one county are being given the opportunity to select a different county to base their Ag Risk Coverage-County Option (ARC-CO) payments on than the current "administrative" county for the 2014 and 2015 crop years, contacts advise.

Under FSA rules, a farmer with land in more than one county but under the same farm number receives ARC-CO payments based on the administrative county as opposed to the other county/counties where land under that farm number are located.

For the 2014 crop year and 2015 crop year, farmers are being given the opportunity to shift the county their ARC-CO payments are based to a county other than the "administrative" county. Under this option, producers have to make that decision by Feb. 1, 2016, and can make a different decision for 2014 versus 2015 crops.

While the decision on 2014 crops is one that can be based on actual payment ARC-CO data, for the 2015 crop decision, the producer will have to "guess" which county to choose as the 2015-crop payments for ARC-CO will not be finalized until Oct. 2016.

If a producer opts to change their county for ARC-CO payments for 2014 crops and it results in a higher ARC-CO payment, FSA will issue an additional amount as ARC-CO payments for most 2014 crops have already been made.

It's not clear exactly how many farms could be affected by the situation, but sources advise it is likely in the single-digit percentage level.

As for 2016, 2017 and 2018 crops, FSA sources advise if a producer would want to change the payment base for ARC-CO if they have land in multiple counties, they could request a reconstitution be done and transfer the administrative county or choose to have the farm split into one or more counties. That would take place under "normal" procedures for FSA.


Washington Insider: New Obesity Data Disappoint

New estimates of U.S. obesity rates for important population groups were released this week and are being seen as a major disappointment for health experts who had hoped anti-obesity programs were paying off much more effectively. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey which comes out every two years is regarded as the best data available and the new estimates have been eagerly awaited.

Because consumption of some foods widely linked to obesity has been declining, the hope was that obesity might be falling significantly, as well. However, the new report was summarized by the New York Times this week and concludes that the share of Americans who were obese had not declined recently, but may even have edged up slightly.

About 38% of American adults were estimated to be obese in 2013 and 2014, up from 35% in 2011 and 2012. While the increase is not statistically significant, it was both surprising and disheartening, the Times said. In addition, when compared with a decade ago, the increase was significant: In 2003 and 2004, about 32% of adults were obese the Times reported.

The increase was especially surprising since consumption of full-calorie soda has dropped by a quarter since the late 1990s and in light of evidence that calorie intake has dropped for both adults and children.

Obesity rates began rising in the 1980s, but the rate flattened in the 2000s, and declines among young children in some cities had lifted expectations that the epidemic might be easing, the Times said.

The current trends do not affect all groups equally, the report observed. Among young people, the rate was unchanged in 2013 and 2014 from the previous period with 17% of Americans ages 2 to 19 obese, the same as in 2003 and 2004. Experts pointed out that efforts to fight obesity had concentrated on children, including changes in school lunches and the removal of sugar-sweetened beverages from some school systems.

Dr. Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, cautioned that while there were modest improvements nationwide, they were extremely uneven, with most of them affecting more educated Americans. A paper he helped write, published this month in Health Affairs, found that Americans' diets had improved in quality from 1999 to 2012, with a reduction in trans fats, small increases in fiber and less soda consumption, but that most of those advances were not happening among lower-income, less educated Americans.

There were a few other surprises, the Times noted. Men had more or less caught up to women in obesity prevalence in recent years, but the new numbers showed that women had edged ahead again. About 38% of adult women were obese from 2011 to 2014, the report found, compared with 34% of men.

Middle-aged Americans were hardest hit, the Times said. Adults ages 40 to 59 had the highest rate of obesity, 40%, followed by people 60 and over, 37% of who were obese. About 32% of 20- to 39-year-olds were obese.

While diet experts were disappointed by the new data, they also say they see the report as "a reminder that many risks, such as the prevalence and inexpensiveness of junk food, had not gone away, and a sign that policy makers need to redouble their efforts."

So, the obesity epidemic is continuing and the progress seen in the declines in some of the foodies' favorite culprits is far from enough. The trends are seen by many experts as indicating that information about health risks and preferred diets do affect consumption patterns, but only slowly and unevenly. And, it suggests that some of the groups most affected by obesity are hardly being reached at all by current efforts and deserve both more and better-focused programs to help deal with this continuing crisis, Washington Insider believes.

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