Washington Insider-- Wednesday

Sweeteners and the War on Obesity

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

Sen. Inhofe Releases Report on EPA, Army Corps Overreach on WOTUS

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has continued to expand their jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA) via the controversial waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, actions that Environment and Public Works panel Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., said are continued evidence the two agencies are "running rogue." That was his conclusion as he released a report by the panel's majority staff on the WOTUS rule.

The report by the Majority staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, titled "From Preventing Pollution of Navigable and Interstate Waters to Regulating Farm Fields, Puddles and Dry Land: A Senate Report on the Expansion of Jurisdiction Claimed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act," shows how EPA and the Corps are interpreting and implementing their CWA authority.

"This new majority committee report demonstrates in detail that the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, under the Obama administration, are running rogue,” Inhofe said. "Case studies in this report show that the Obama administration is already asserting federal control over land and water based on the concepts they are trying to codify in the WOTUS rule, even though the courts have put that rule on hold. Congress shouldn’t wait on the Supreme Court to make the inevitable decision that this agency overreach is illegal."

Further, Inhofe said the report should be "evidence enough that it’s time for Democrats and Republicans to work together rein in EPA and the Corps. Over the course of the past year, 69 Senators – a veto proof majority – have gone on the record about their grave concerns regarding the WOTUS rule. It’s time to come together to protect farmers, ranchers, water utilities, local governments, and contractors by giving them the clarity and certainty they deserve and stopping EPA and the Corps from eroding traditional exemptions."

Biofuel RINs Vulnerable to Fraud: Report

Doug Parker, the previous director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criminal investigation division and now president of the consultancy Earth and Water Strategies LLC, said the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program is vulnerable to scams that have bilked victims out of nearly $1 billion so far.

Without changes, Parker warned, the RFS is "persistently open to large-scale, continuing misconduct" that undermines its green goals.

Valero Energy Corp., the largest independent U.S. oil refiner, commissioned Parker's 13-page report as part of a lobbying campaign to convince lawmakers and the EPA to shift the burden for complying with the annual biofuel quotas away from refiners and importers to blenders who mix biodiesel and ethanol. Carl Icahn, the majority owner of CVR Energy Inc., also has complained about the status quo.

The U.S. government has prosecuted at least eight fraud cases concentrated on biodiesel, in which players lured by sometimes high RIN prices have sold fake credits and pretended to produce phantom fuel.

The biofuels industry pushed back against Parker’s conclusions. Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, said it is wrong to suggest it is hard to enforce or comply with the RFS. "It’s really quite simple. Blend renewable fuels or buy credits," he said, according to Bloomberg. "This is all oil industry smoke and mirrors designed to make the federal government nervous about enforcing a program that is working." There have been "a few isolated cases of RIN fraud in the biodiesel sector," but that "has not been an issue at all with ethanol RINs," said Geoff Cooper, senior vice president of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Washington Insider: Sweeteners and the War on Obesity

The Associated Press is reporting this week that many people see sugar as a nutritional villain and that lack of information makes it is difficult even to estimate consumption.

It notes that Philadelphia recently passed a tax on sugary drinks and several others are proposing similar rules. In addition, the government now is recommending limiting consumption to 10% of daily calories.

But the shortage of data makes setting specific targets “complicated business” AP says, especially since government figures are only estimates. And, available data and industry trend analyses indicates consumption is already falling.

On average, Americans' total consumption of caloric sweeteners like refined cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup is down 15% from its peak in 1999 when U.S. consumers used an average of 111 grams of sugar a day (423 calories).

After plateauing in recent years, consumption appears to have fallen further, to 94 grams a day (358 calories) last year, according AP. However, it cautions that level is still higher than the 87 grams Americans consumed on average in 1970.

A major reason for the drop is the decline in soda consumption. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner in Philadelphia, said it could take years before the positive effects from their reductions in soda consumption to turn up in health data. But he also argues that sweeteners are not the sole cause of the obesity problem, which include factors like the growth in snacking, the availability of food in more places, and oversized restaurant dishes which all fuel obesity. "Sugar is a problem, but sugar is not the only problem," Farley said.

And though it's trending lower current sweetener consumption at 94 grams a day is still high, AP points out; the equivalent of roughly two and half cans of Coke per person, far above the government recommendation of 50 grams per day (200 calories) for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet.

The AP gets pretty deep into the weeds on the strengths and weaknesses of the available data, but argues that while there is “…always room for improvement and refinement in making food consumption estimates, the changes in estimating methodology were applied retroactively, so the trend the numbers show would still be consistent." Even if the numbers are inexact, the downward trajectory in sweeteners is real, AP says.

Analysts say the reason for the sweetener consumption decline is the drop in soda consumption that started around the same time and is down 24% since 1998, according to industry tracker Beverage Digest. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), thinks it's a major factor, and perhaps the entire reason, for the drop in sweetener consumption.

The American Beverage Association, the trade group for Coke and Pepsi, says soda isn't the driver of obesity rates, since those levels have climbed as soda drinking has declined, and industry observers have mixed views on cause and effect of the trend, the AP says.

It thinks some of the consumption decline is food company use of sophisticated new methods to reduce sweeteners without sacrificing sweetness. These include "sweet taste boosters" that amplify smaller amounts of sweeteners—and, which show up only as "artificial flavors" on packages, according to Senomyx, a California company that makes them.

Earlier this year, MycoTechnology began making a "bitter blocker" that reduces the need for sweeteners that mask bitterness. The Colorado company says it is made from a mushroom extract and can be listed as a "natural flavor."

Some companies have also switched back to "real sugar" to give their products a more wholesome image, even though there may be no difference in calories. While the overall decline in sweeteners reflects the drop in high-fructose corn syrup, the consumption of refined sugar has actually edged up in recent years.

So, there is growing attention to sweetener consumption—even if there is no “smoking gun” that points at a single or a couple of causes for obesity, it seems consumers are increasingly willing to consider sugar overconsumption a health threat that should be reduced somehow. And, the target levels are still far, far below actual consumption, so current progress clearly won’t be enough.

However, next steps in the war against obesity won’t be easy to define or implement—although the fact of recent progress will certainly encourage the health community to invest in new regulations, information and other strategies, since the obesity epidemic continues to rage and to affect millions of children and adults, Washington Insider believes.

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