Washington Insider -- Thursday

Ever Foggier Fight over Food Labels

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

Hatch: Plenty of Time to Fix TPP Issues

There is time to resolve concerns raised by lawmakers over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters following a Senate policy luncheon.

“To be honest with you, we probably may not have the votes right now to do it, but then again we may, but we've got plenty of time to do it—we've got six years to solve those problems,” Hatch said. His comments reflect the view that the timeframe for a final congressional vote on TPP ratification could slip to 2017, after a new president takes office.

Hatch’s comments echo those of Senate majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who also recently noted the six-year window on the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation which authorizes US TPP negotiations.

McConnell has also been non-committal about calls to bring up TPP in a lame-duck session following November’s elections, as some members have called for.

Animal Antimicrobial Marketing Data Rule Finalized by FDA

A rule revising reporting requirements for antimicrobial producers who sell products intended to be used in food animals has been finalized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and published in the Federal Register.

The rule requires a breakdown of sales of antimicrobial products by major species of food animal they are used on. The new change expands previous reporting requirements which did not include the by-species breakdown.

The data collected will be used in conjunction with other data collected by FDA on antimicrobials, as part of the National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB), a joint effort between FDA, USDA, and the Centers for Disease Control.

“This information will further enhance FDA’s ongoing activities related to slowing the development of antimicrobial resistance to help ensure that safe and effective antimicrobial new animal drugs will remain available for use in human and animal medicine,” said Dr. William Flynn, deputy director for science policy in the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Washington Insider: Ever Foggier Fight over Food Labels

There are lots of people who take “general category” labels on food very seriously and are willing to pay considerably more for products labeled “natural” or “healthy,” or are interested in avoiding this product or that one made with genetically modified organisms.

These are known to create profitable images for retailers, but are often criticized by the food industry for the difficulty involved in accommodating extremely vague claims — for example, the assertion by a national retailer recently that its food products promised “integrity.”

Increasingly, the result has been the use of labels that are difficult to verify and now a leading consumer advocate organization is claiming that more consumers than ever before are being misled by food labeled as “natural."

The Hill reported this week on a Consumer Reports’ (CR) survey that showed that 73% of all consumers seek out foods labeled “natural” when grocery shopping, in spite of the fact that the term has no official definition, nor is its use regulated.

The CR studies were made in 2014 and 2015 and showed the majority of consumers expect foods labeled as “natural” to contain no artificial ingredients or processing aids, no toxic pesticides and no GMOs, among other characteristics.

CR says these expectations “aren’t typically met,” so it is urging the Food and Drug Administration to issue a rule that clearly defines the term natural or ban its use altogether.

“If the agency does not ban, it should establish a highly meaningful standard that is in line with consumer expectations for ‘natural’ foods. Perhaps they should be required to be produced according to the government’s standards for organic food and that contain no artificial ingredients,” said Urvashi Rangan, the director of the organization’s Food Safety & Sustainability Center. “And any claim should be independently verified to ensure it is true,” he argues.

This is not the first time CR has challenged food labels. After it petitioned the FDA in 2014 to ban the word “natural” on food labels, the agency turned to the public to weigh in on what the term should mean in food labeling. That public comment period has just closed, and it will be very interesting to see what that the comments reveal and what FDA does about it.

Overall, CR’s position on the labels is complicated. It does not seem to be suggesting that claims of food benefits or risks should be vetted by FDA – as GMO products are, or even as certified organic products are. And, CR does not emphasize that consumers also say they don’t believe federal safety assurances--but seems to think they may accept assurances about the recipes used.

The truth is that consumer advocacy groups have been undercutting government labels for years on the grounds that consumers have a “right to know” more than current fed rules require. And, it is not really news that many food labels have become corrupted to the point that consumers widely think they mean something that is simply not true. So, it is a little surprising that the advocates turned to the feds to do something about it.

No one knows what the public told FDA about the natural definition, or what the agency will decide to do about it — but, there is at least the tiniest hint that they agency may find its options narrowed by a label that is so difficult to define specifically. Or, it may appoint a commission to consider all the ramifications concerning such definitions. In any event, it will be pretty surprising if the term is fully clarified to the satisfaction of all any time soon, Washington insider believes.

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