Washington Insider -- Thursday

The Salt Issue

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

TTIP Talks Expected on Sidelines at OECD Meetings

Informal talks for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) were expected on the sidelines of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) meetings in Paris taking place this week, an OECD official told Bloomberg BNA.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership isn't on the meeting's formal agenda, but informal talks between the U.S. and European Union (EU) are expected. "I would be surprised if there were not bilateral meetings between the parties to try to advance things," including meetings between the officials and their teams, the OECD official told Bloomberg BNA.

U.S. Trade Rep Michael Froman and EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem are both expected to attend the OECD ministerial meetings. The official said the told Bloomberg that the OECD expects high-level trade officials from at least 45 countries to attend the meeting.

Trade ministers were set to meet Thursday with the OECD to for an update on the organization's work on trade and investment policies. After the update, ministers will tell the OECD what kind of future policy work they would like to see from it, with assistance from the WTO.

Subjects on the agenda include agriculture and non-agriculture market access, environmental goods and services, trade and investment policy coherence, as well as restrictions in the services sector, incentives and subsidies. Other policies expected to be discussed include those to reduce unnecessary trade costs and the prevalence of protectionist measures.

Changes Needed to Keep GMOs Effective: Report to EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs to do more to prevent a widely planted type of genetically modified corn from becoming obsolete, according to a report from the agency's inspector general released Wednesday.

The report looks at corn plants that produce the insecticide Bt internally through genetic modification, which has helped corn farmers significantly reduce the amount of insecticides they spray externally on their crops. But widespread reports of insects impervious to Bt have prompted worries that corn farmers may have to return to heavy chemical spraying in the near future.

The EPA's inspector general said the agency should, among other actions, create a standardized test to determine if insects have become resistant to Bt and should also create a way for farmers and researchers to report instances of resistance directly to the EPA, rather than to the seed company, which may be disinclined to pass those reports along to the agency.

The IG's report indicates that the agency has agreed to implement all of the inspector general's recommendations, and in fact has already implemented several of them.

The report's recommendations include standardizing a testing method for confirming resistance; developing a method to allow researchers and growers to directly report resistance concerns; preparing remedial action plans before resistance occurs; increasing the requirement for resistance monitoring data; making Compliance Assurance Program reports and resistance monitoring data publicly available; and improving the EPA's website.

Washington Insider: The Salt Issue

If you are confused by the more detailed food labels and the competing advice about what you should and shouldn't eat, be prepared for another dose of centralized uncertainty. Politico is reporting this week, along with almost every other news group, that the Obama administration has aimed its public relations weapons at salt. And, guess what? The effort is expected to be seriously controversial.

The administration issued sweeping salt reduction goals Wednesday for foods ranging from French fries to granola. The FDA goals are an effort to get Americans to eat healthier, it says.

And, the "color" around the story is that the anti-salt fight has gone on for a long time behind the scenes, and the press seems to be assigning a "morality" to the issue. The new "targets" are voluntary but are expected to put significant pressure on food manufacturers and restaurants and to meet fierce opposition from industry groups and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Politico says.

At least some health advocates are happy. "The administration has led many public health initiatives," Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told Politico noting that he has been on a crusade against salt for decades. "If industry takes these targets seriously, this initiative could have the biggest impact."

In general, public health advocates seems to have little doubt about the issue and continues to see salt reductions as critical to improving Americans' health and reining in tens of billions in healthcare costs. Jacobson's CSPI group sued FDA to prod it to respond to a decade-old petition seeking a salt crackdown and argues that hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost prematurely from high blood pressure, heart attacks and other health problems linked to excessive sodium consumption. For some health groups, having FDA draw a line in the sand, even a voluntary one, is the beginning of a long process of arm-twisting and changing consumer tastes.

Canada, the United Kingdom and New York City have also led their own voluntary salt reduction initiatives in recent years.

Politico says the administration has been working toward sodium reduction for several years but politics and competing priorities bogged down the policy proposal. The average American consumes upwards of 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which comes out to about one and a half teaspoons. The government has long urged consumers to limit their sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams or even less for those with health risks.

Nevertheless, FDA's new sodium reduction goals pose a thorny issue for many food makers who rely on salt for taste, texture and even safety in some products. The idea is also increasingly controversial in the scientific community as recent studies have questioned whether Americans need to cut back on salt intake.

For example, a large 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that going below 3,000 milligrams of sodium per day was actually associated with an increased risk of death. More recently, other prominent journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet have continued to publish studies suggesting that lowering salt intake might actually increase health risks. The Institute of Medicine in 2013 concluded there wasn't enough evidence to support sodium reduction below 2,300 milligrams.

So, now the administration appears to be relying on somewhat wobbly science for a major food policy concern. That may be amusing to some in the press, but consumer confusion is a serious, widespread problem. It appears to be a situation where science provides an embarrassment for public policy, one that should be addressed as quickly and thoroughly as possible—and, watched closely by producers as the situation is clarified, Washington Insider believes.

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