On the Table

On the Table: Limits and labels are an ongoing food fight

CorrespondentMarch 19, 2013 

Making food policy is a messy business.

The skirmishes over nutrition labels, school lunches, sugary cereal advertising and a hundred other topics never cease.

So it goes that a judge last week halted New York City’s ban on super-sized soft drinks imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and health advocates. Two-handed massive soft drinks are back on the menu again – for now.

The controversy got your attention and started a national dialogue about how food policies might be used to protect the public’s health.

Next time, the idea of limits on sugary soft drink sizes might meet less resistance. And that’s how these policies work their way into public acceptance.

Menu labeling is another front in the food policy wars.

A law passed in 2010 required restaurant chains and other food outlets to list the calories in the foods they sold. The Food and Drug Administration is the agency responsible for writing the rule for implementing the law.

It’s not going so well.

Restaurants are cooperating, but other powerful stakeholders are fighting back – hard. The rule as proposed by FDA would force supermarkets and convenience stores that sell ready-to-eat meals to also provide calorie information.

They don’t want to, citing logistical challenges and expense. So the details of the rule are being debated and may change again before a final version is published.

The situation is reminiscent of more than 15 years ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture attempted to overhaul the national school lunch program. It proposed a move away from meals based on food groups to a nutrient-based system that would have required schools to analyze menus and design meals based on their overall nutrition content.

School food service professionals opposed the change, citing administrative and cost burdens. The USDA’s original proposed rule failed. Subsequent revisions were overturned two more times until the final version was approved, that time with greater input from stakeholders who had fought the move.

And that rule just went through additional substantial changes recently.

So when you hear about food policy fights like New York City’s giganto-gulp soda ban, just remember: It’s part of a process – one that never ends.

It’s the nature of food policy.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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