The following is a guest post from Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic Communications, and the former executive vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (now the Consumer Brands Association.) He also is the former director of communications for the American Beverage Association.
The Biden administration is pressing ahead with an ambitious set of rules, regulations and guidance that, collectively, are designed to permanently change the very nature of the global food supply.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is currently pursuing two comprehensive food labeling changes despite earnest concerns from regulated entities. FDA’s plan to enact a “healthy” definition for packaged food and its pursuit of a mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labeling scheme represent the most sweeping changes to food labeling since the introduction of the Nutrition Facts Panel more than 30 years ago.
And let’s not forget the FDA is forging ahead with its long-term, ten-year voluntary sodium reduction guidelines even before they know if the short-term goals are achievable or have any impact on public health.
In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) are seeking to radically reconstruct the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans based on a specious argument about the evils of “ultra-processed foods” and their connection to non-communicable diseases.
Separately, the Biden USDA has proposed draconian nutrition standards for school meals that are virtually unachievable and will have no significant impact on childhood obesity.
Taken together, these actions are designed to establish a regulatory matrix that dictates how our food is made by placing strict limits on sugar, salt and fat for just about every food product. If enacted, this means the government essentially dictates the recipes and formulas for everything America eats – from salad dressings and yogurt to pizza and pasta.
Under this scenario, food companies will not only be subjected to regulatory enforcement action by FDA, but it also makes it easier for plaintiff’s attorneys to drag those same companies into court in large class action cases. Those lawyers have been trying unsuccessfully to win a landmark case against restaurants or food companies for causing obesity for decades.
Heavy government intervention in food production makes the folks who blame “big food” for our public health woes feel better because it seems like progress and feels punitive against corporate America. However, virtually no compelling evidence exists to show these types of public policies have the desired effect across the general population.
Partnering up is the key to success
The most successful food and nutrition activist of my lifetime who is no particular friend of industry – Former First Lady Michelle Obama – understood the limits of government mandates in her pursuit of ending childhood obesity within a generation.
Yes, she helped pass a few government mandates, but also sought to partner with food companies and others to develop voluntary changes and marketplace commitments to reshape product offerings and food marketing practices. Self-regulatory programs like Facts Up Front, the Healthy Weight Commitment, Clear on Calories and stricter CARU food marketing commitments are examples of collaborative ventures between Mrs. Obama and the private sector that truncated the need for government action.
Let’s be clear, the relationship between FLOTUS and packaged food companies was far from chummy. Each side had great skepticism of the other’s motivations and intentions. I know because, as an executive at the Grocery Manufacturers Association for much of the Obama Administration, I sat in the rooms, around the conference tables and on the phone calls where agreements were reached, and commitments made.
It was far from a perfect marriage, but the earnest dialogue between the companies and the White House resulted in the implementation of serious, responsible and impactful programs.
Rather than adopt the Obama operating model, the Biden Administration appears to hold food companies in contempt as an industry sector that must be cowed through regulation.
A Biden regulatory blitzkrieg just doesn’t make a lot of sense. For one, our food supply is healthier than it’s ever been due to the consistent work and commitment of food companies. In addition, thus far, no single government intervention – or combination thereof – has proven effective in combating obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
Then there is another significant problem with the regulatory-only approach. The FDA food division is a hot mess right now. The FDA Commissioner promises to get it together, but the past shows odds are slim, and much time will pass before the agency gets it right. How can FDA adequately and properly take on two major regulatory pillars at the same time?
The “tough on food companies” approach is fundamentally flawed. Progress is possible but the Administration should think about adopting some of Mrs. Obama’s flexibility and work with industry to identify and put into place voluntary programs rather than push through a gauntlet of costly and dubious government mandates.
By moving forward with questionable respect for food companies, the Administration also risks opposition in Congress. Congressional oversight or appropriations language designed to alter or halt federal agency rulemaking is something neither FDA, USDA nor HHS really want to face, but the odds of it happening are rising exponentially.
The power of the marketplace and voluntary leadership by food companies are our best hope to reverse the sharp rise in non-communicable diseases. Cooperation, collaboration and innovation are the blueprint for success. In other words, a little more Michelle Obama and a lot less regulation is the winning formula.