The president and first lady like to fashion themselves as “foodies.” Michelle Obama’s focus on food is well known, but the president is also an accomplished gastronome. In fact, during his recent trip to Vietnam, Obama had a peak foodie moment, dining with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Afterward, Bourdain praised the president, writing: “He handled the sticky, hard-to-separate noodles that accompany the pork and the broth components of Bun Cha skillfully.”
Always the statesman, even when slurping noodles.
Yet, while Obama was exploring the culinary greatness of Vietnam, back here at home, his team of behaviorists at the Food and Drug Administration were readying new “voluntary guidance” designed to force nudge the food industry into lowering the amount of salt put into processed food. This guidance, rumored for years and finally issued last week, will require food makers to cut sodium levels in more than 100 categories of food items such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, frozen pizza, deli meats, and snacks.
Those unaware of how the regulatory process works might innocently believe that because the nice guys at the FDA made these guidelines voluntary, food manufacturers can just ignore them and carry on as they always have. But, sadly for those of us who like the way our food tastes right now, Washington doesn’t quite work that way. When an extremely powerful federal agency issues “voluntary guidelines,” food producers and companies know that the guidelines need to be treated like legally binding regulations. In business — big and small — to survive, you comply.
And so, industry will submit, and in two years, consumers will start to taste a difference in their crackers, their breads, their favorite soups and canned goods. It’s truly an astonishing affront to the basic concept of liberty: The federal government is forcing food makers to reformulate time-tested consumer favorites. And, if that isn’t outrageous enough, consider also that food manufacturers are already providing consumers an abundance of low-salt and no-salt products, and they have been for years.
That isn’t good enough for the Obama administration or for food Marxists such as Michael Jacobson, the smarmy head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Jacobson actually sued the FDA for not moving fast enough to bully the food industry into making their products taste bland and flavorless — he wrote the book on bullying the food industry.
Of course, Jacobson and the many other vocal food Marxists (Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman, and Michael Pollan — all of whom I’ve written about for NRO) have a problem with consumers’ having a choice. Freedom is troubling to this lot because when people have the power to make choices, there’s always the possibility they will make a bad choice. So the solution is simple: Take away people’s choices. It’s best for us stupid mouth stuffers to leave the really hard questions (like . . . hmmm, what’s healthier: Ice cream or carrots? I need a label for that!) to Jacobson and his pals. It’s best if we let them point their finger and dictate what should and shouldn’t be on store shelves.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell seemed to hint that this bold new regulatory model would be one of Obama’s more troubling legacies. Reacting to the FDA’s new salt guidelines, Burwell told ABC News that making these changes gradually would help consumers adjust their taste for salt. You see, huddled masses, you just need to “adjust” to these new rules. You’ll get used to it. You’ll grow to love your bland food. If you like your crackers, you can keep your crackers (wink).
But this time the FDA’s authoritarian behavior isn’t just an assault on freedom of choice; these policies are also medically questionable.
Members of the Obama administration and public-health officials suggest that Americans eat too much salt. Estimates vary, but in general, Americans eat about 3,400 milligrams of salt every day. That’s about 1.5 teaspoons of salt a day and a bit lower than the world average, which is around 3,600 milligrams daily. But many researchers and doctors are sounding the alarm about these one-size-fits-all salt-reduction policies. While the Obama administration flatly denies it, there now exists a significant body of scientific studies (see the Scientific American article “End the War on Salt” for a good list of studies) that question the relationship between salt and cardiovascular disease. And, as Peter Whoriskey reported in a Washington Post Wonkblog essay in June last year, many of these studies show that not everyone benefits from a low-salt diet; some demographics might even experience negative health outcomes if they lower their salt intake to the FDA’s goal of 2,300 milligrams per day.
Even Susan Mayne, who directs the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, denied the latest medical research, saying in a press release this month, “The totality of the scientific evidence supports sodium reduction from current intake levels.” She then cited a 2009 Institute of Medicine report that concluded that reducing sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day can significantly help Americans. But Mayne failed to mention the more recent report, also by the Institute of Medicine, which reversed the 2009 opinion and concluded that government sodium-reduction policies were inadvisable and possibly dangerous.
We can be grateful that Representative Andy Harris (R., Md.), who also happens to be a medical doctor, recently acknowledged the newer science and seemed to understand the danger of agencies’ creating policy before knowing the full medical story. Last month, during the passage of the fiscal-year 2017 appropriations bill that funds the FDA, Harris offered an amendment stating that the FDA must enact policies based on the most recent, relevant, and accurate science available. The amendment passed by a voice vote.
The committee’s report accompanying the bill states: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) are working together to update the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) report on sodium. The FDA is encouraged to issue any voluntary or mandatory guidance based upon an updated DRI report.” And yet, in the absence of that DRI report, the FDA has gone ahead with its policy proposal — in violation of appropriators’ expressed instructions.
Flouting congressional intent is nothing new for Obama’s FDA, but this latest example is especially bold considering the clarity of Harris’s message to the agency: Don’t go passing any new regulations until we have the science figured out.
And so, these voluntary regulations have been issued. There is a comment period, but these guidelines will have an immediate impact on the food industry. We’ll probably see food companies scramble as they rework foods, test recipes, and reformulate products we all love and don’t want changed. (The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association estimates that the cost to the food industry for these changes will be between $500,000 to $700,000 per product.) Things will begin to taste different and costs will increase.
If we want to see where this all ends up, one need only look at the soup debacle of 2009, when Campbell’s Soup went on a health kick and announced plans to reduce the sodium level in all of its soups by 32 percent. By 2012, the Campbell’s Soup sales were so low that the new company CEO announced a plan to put back the salt. Campbell’s still maintains a low-salt line, but it was clear that consumers missed the old formula.
We all better get used to that feeling.
— Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.