LEGISLATIVE LINE

Barry Scher is a government and retail consultant with Policy Solutions LLC. He is a 42-year veteran of Giant/Landover, where he held several key positions, including Vice President of Corporate Public Affairs. He can be reached at bscher@policy-solutions.net.

Let there be no doubt that the food industry is changing rapidly, and this means that many emerging issues as well as new technology and products that are new in the marketplace will need to be reviewed closely by government regulators. Only a couple of years ago, for example, HEMP infused products and “fake” beef, chicken and sausage products were not even on a retailer’s radar screen. So this means more oversight by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who are charged with the responsibility of monitoring food safety issues as the food industry rapidly changes.

Policy wonks know that the majority of food safety issues fall under the domain of FDA. Late last month, according to Politico, the FDA did something it has not done in a very long time – it called together food manufacturers, retailers, consumer advocates and food industry consultants for a major meeting to discuss food safety. The meeting was centered around a theme publicized as a “New Era of Smarter Food Safety.” While the outcomes of the important gathering are still being put into perspective, in early 2020 the FDA plans to roll out a document that, in the words of FDA‘s hierarchy, will have detailed “critical next steps to protect public health and keep pace with the ever-changing global food supply chain.” Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response, said, “at the end of the day, what we want to do is bend the foodborne illness curve because as you know it’s been flat.”

The staff behind the newly planned FDA initiative will be gathering input from the food industry on four major topic areas: Tech-enabled traceability and foodborne outbreak response; smarter tools and approaches for prevention; new business models and retail modernization; and food safety culture. We anticipate a lot of changes coming down the pike for all segments of the food industry as a result of the November meeting of food industry bigwigs.

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Improving State Food Safety Programs

The food industry as stated above is very closely inspected and overseen by the federal government, yet the states also have developed a labyrinth of their own laws, regulations and policies to monitor the food industry. In an effort to improve upon food safety, the FDA has issued its 2019 Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards. The Standards make recommendations to states and other regulatory bodies for designing and managing retail food regulatory programs and also helps jurisdictions facilitate effective inspections, implement foodborne illness prevention strategies and identify food safety areas that need improvement. If you are into food safety, and who isn’t these days, log on to the FDA website (www.fda.gov) for more information about the National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards.

Vending Machines Calorie Labeling

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FDA has issued a final rule on “Calorie Labeling of Articles of Food in Vending Machines.” The rule, which was first issued in 2014, makes minor revisions and clarifications in the size of the print required on labels to disclose calories on food sold from vending machines. The rule only applies to businesses that operate 20 or more vending machines. The compliance date for the new font or type size requirement is now July 1, 2021.

Nutrition Facts Panel

At the end of October, FDA announced that it was giving food manufacturers more time to comply with its new Nutrition Facts panel requirement that adorns food packages. While the new labeling requirement will still go into effect on January 1, 2020, the Agency has announced that it will work with manufacturers on compliance and not enforce the rule for six months. As a sidebar note, it was reported in Politico that the Food & Beverage Issue Alliance, a powerful coalition of food industry trade groups, had recently asked for enforcement discretion as major trade groups such as the American Bakers Association, had said that about 20 to 30 percent of the products their members produce would “need additional time for the substantial label changes,” but it was also noted that the industry is well on its way toward compliance.

SNAP

It is a known fact that price incentives boost Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) produce purchases. A USDA-funded test program that was launched several years ago was created and designed to encourage low-income Americans to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables has shown signs of success in Michigan supermarkets, according to results published in Health Affairs magazine. Researchers funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation analyzed millions of transactions at 32 supermarkets in Michigan in 2015 and 2016. Some retail food stores offered incentives to low-income people to buy fresh produce and others did not offer any promotions. The final test results showed that SNAP participants spent over 7 percent more on fresh produce at stores offering subsidies.

You probably already figured that promotions do rightly increase sales so what’s the big deal? The purpose was to get low-income SNAP recipients to think more about purchasing fresh produce, something that is easier said than done in the marketplace (remember growing up your mom always said to eat your vegetables but ugh – few did). However, the test proved that incentives did increase SNAP fresh produce sales. It is axiomatic that the more produce eaten the healthier SNAP recipients are and that is a good end result. Healthier bodies equate to fewer medical expenses. Tell that to your produce marketing team!

Obesity Rates Drop

While on the subject of SNAP, Politico reported last month that diet-related diseases like obesity remain intractable problems in the U.S. (as nearly 40 percent of adults are obese), but a new study released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta offers some promising good news, at least for very young children.

The agency recently found that 41 U.S. states and territories saw significant declines in obesity among children (2-4 years of age) whose families participated in the Women’s Infants & Children (WIC) program between 2010-2016. The study noted that in 2009 WIC state agencies were required to update their food packages and educational tools to better align with the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans and infant feeding practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This change led to increased availability of healthier foods and beverages in authorized WIC stores and improved dietary quality among families who enrolled in WIC,” the study highlighted. Still, the report noted, that obesity prevalence remained high in most states in 2016. The CDC cited recommendations for lowering obesity such as increasing physical activity and improving food and beverage environments, creating better nutrition standards and even having more walkable neighborhoods. Interesting! Have you ever wondered why citizens, for example in Paris and Amsterdam, are so thin? It’s because they walk and bike a heck of a lot unlike Americans who rely on their cars and electric scooters these days to go only a few blocks. Sad isn’t it?

HEMP Interim Rules Out

As I mentioned in last month’s column, the official publication of hemp production rules was about ready to be unveiled. I can inform you that they are now available, all 161-pages, as the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service just published an Interim Final Rule (IFR) establishing national hemp regulations. The official version of the rule was published in the Federal Register on October 31 and will be effective immediately with a 60-day comment period ending on December 31, 2019. You may obtain additional information at the USDA website – www.usda.gov/regulations/hemp. Hemp-infused products are a huge deal for the food and health and beauty care industry and will grow significantly in 2020.

Happy New Year

After working on public affairs issues for almost 45 years as an officer and vice president of Giant Food of Maryland and Ahold USA, one thing that I never get tired of is my continued involvement and interest in the legislative arena. Guess it’s in my blood. Remember, monitoring government trends and staying abreast of regulatory and legal issues does indeed impact your bottom line and can save you from some nasty and costly mistakes. Therefore, if there are emerging trends or issues that you would like to know more about in 2020, simply drop me an e-mail. As we close out 2019, I wish you all a healthy and happy New Year!

Barry Scher is associated with the public policy firm of Policy-Solutions LLC and may be reached at Bscher@policy-solutions.net.