Washington Insider -- Monday

Massive Frozen Food Recall

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

FDA Approves Controversial Changes to Nutrition Facts Panel

Food regulators have approved a major overhaul of nutrition policy, releasing new regulations on added sugars. A new nutrition facts panel that appears on the back of all packaged food and beverages will list how many grams of sugar have been added by manufacturers. Most food manufacturers will be required to use the new label by July 2018. Producers with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply. First lady Michelle Obama announced the changes in an annual nutrition summit in Washington.

The decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to detail added sugar from the total sugar count already on packaging completes a lengthy push by the Obama administration amid aggressive opposition from food and beverage companies, which say there is no difference between naturally present sugars and added sugars.

Federal health officials argued that the changes were needed to bring labels into step with the reality of the modern American diet – the prior labels were based on eating habits and nutrition data from the 1970s and ’80s and before portion sizes expanded significantly. For example, a single ice cream serving is two-thirds of a cup, compared with the current half cup.

Health officials say added sugars have no nutritional value and increase overall caloric intake, helping fuel obesity and diabetes while steering Americans away from nutrient-rich foods. Until now, nutrition panels have flagged recommended maximums for fats, sodium, cholesterol and carbohydrates but not for sugar. The sugar industry argued that having a line that says "sugars" and another that says "added sugars" would be confusing, since it wouldn't make clear that the latter is part of the first. The FDA addressed that problem by changing "sugars” to "total sugars" and adding "includes" to the "added sugars" line.

"The Sugar Association is disappointed by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) ruling to require an 'added sugars' declaration and daily reference value (DRV) on the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL)," the association said in a statement Friday morning. "The extraordinary contradictions and irregularities, as well as the lack of scientific justification in this rulemaking process are unprecedented for the FDA." The association said, “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America.”

Both Mars and Nestle have supported the measure.

Reaction to the labels from food companies has been mixed since they were first proposed. While some companies have fought the new line for added sugar, others have supported it. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food industry's largest companies, has supported the larger print for calories. Some observers say the new rules could significantly and negatively impact the soft drink industry. A 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, for instance, contains about 130% of the daily recommended maximum for added sugar.

EPA Looks to Propose Pollinator Rule Before Obama Term Ends

New regulations that would require pesticide makers to begin submitting more data to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on how their products affect pollinators are set to be proposed before President Barack Obama leaves office.

Under current regulations EPA may request pollinator data on an as-needed basis if there is concern a pesticide may harm the crucial insects. The new regulation would specify what types of data companies would need to submit for certain types of chemicals.

EPA plans to formally propose the rule in January, according to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) May 18 regulatory agenda update.

EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) is also developing a guidance document for pesticide makers which outlines the protocols to follow when conducting pollinator risk studies for their products, according to remarks by Anita Pease, a division director at a May 18 pesticide stakeholder meeting.

Other planned EPA regulatory actions on pesticides include relaxing requirements for publishing pesticide actions in the Federal Register, expected to be proposed Aug. 2016, and small changes to pesticide incident reporting requirements, set to be finalized Oct. 2016.

Washington Insider: Massive Frozen Food Recall

The Associated Press is reporting that a massive recall of millions of packages of fruits and vegetables that were shipped to all 50 US states, Canada and Mexico is still underway and that authorities responsible for dealing with the listeria-linked illnesses and deaths are concerned that it will be increasingly difficult to get consumers to dig through their freezers and check for products they may have bought some time ago, as far back as 2014.

AP says that it is one of the largest food recalls in recent memory, with "well over 400" products from CRF Frozen Foods in Pasco, Washington, involved. The products involved are retailed under more than 40 different brand names through major retailers like Costco, Target, Trader Joe's and Safeway, among others.

So far, eight people have been sickened by listeria that's genetically similar to that found in CRF vegetables, and two have died. "Unquestionably, this is a lot of product. ... It reflects the severity of listeria as an illness, the long duration of illnesses and the outbreak and the long shelf life of the products," said Matthew Wise, who leads the outbreak response team at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The initial recall started April 22 and covered 11 frozen vegetable products. On May 2, CRF expanded it to include all of its frozen organic and traditional fruit and vegetable products manufactured or processed at its Washington plant since May 1, 2014. Using recently developed whole-genome sequencing of food-contaminating bacteria, the FDA and CDC found that the listeria bacteria found in the blood of a person sickened in 2013 is genetically similar to the listeria tied to the recall.

"The idea is that it's possible that it could be linked to this plant as far back as that because of the match, so the recall was extended that far back," CRF spokesman Gene Grabowski said. The CRF plant closed two weeks ago but Grabowski said the company is still trying to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

Wise said his concern is that consumers take the trouble to check the online recall lists and discard the products from of their freezers. "Listeriosis always makes us worry because it's such a serious infection," he said. The CDC says listeria is most harmful to adults over 65 with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

The enormity of the problem is highlighted by the fact that both packaged for sale as individual products and repackaged by places like Piggly Wiggly, Kroger and ConAgra foods as ingredients in a host of other store-brand and private-label products for stores like Trader Joe's and Costco.

In this outbreak, of the eight who were sick, six were in California. The two people who died were from Maryland and Washington. Authorities told AP that while Listeria is a very dangerous bacteria, the fact that much of the food being recalled is vegetables that are typically cooked, which kills the bacteria likely reduced the number of consumers sickened.

The CDC continues to monitor state illness reports for any sign of additional outbreaks, Wise said. Listeria causes an estimated 1,600 cases illnesses each year in the US, although it is likely that only about half are reported. About 18 percent of listeriosis patients die.

FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said it's important to follow label directions for cooking frozen foods and to check freezers thoroughly for the products listed on the FDA website.

The current outbreak spotlights a key problem with our food safety system through which very large amounts of product handled by individual operations are very widely distributed, and are often widely integrated into national and international operations.

FDA has been working build stronger protections into anti-terrorist plans across the industry for more than a decade now and much of the product now being recalled likely was covered by such plans. Still, it seems that neither CDC nor FDA has much of an idea how to insure that potentially contaminated product is located and destroyed.

So far, there hasn’t been much of a hue and cry from the press over the lack of progress in finding the cause of this outbreak or why there are not more effective measures to control its impacts. Clearly, CDC, FDA, USDA and other regulatory agencies need to move quickly to pin down the causes of this current problem and tighten regulations where necessary to raise the consumer protections involved – and to inform consumers how to deal with this one and how the next one will be prevented, Washington Insider believes.

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