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Regulation in 2014 PART TWO: The snack food and beverage industries grapple with increased transparency

By Maggie Hennessy , 19-Dec-2013

The debate rages on over whether government should have a say in what consumers eat and drink, as the high-profile proposed cap on soda sizes brought the issue into the limelight in 2013. For the trade associations representing the beverage and snack food industries, concerns over consumers’ right to decide what they eat and drink will certainly spill over into 2014. 

American Beverage Association: The answer is labeling, not size limitations or a soda tax

The ABA has mobilized beverage manufacturers in recent years to ramp up labeling efforts, in an effort to “help empower consumers to make the right choices,” Christopher Gindlesperger, senior director of public affairs, told FoodNavigator-USA.

ABA member companies are no longer offering full-calorie soft drinks to schools nationwide and beverage calories shipped to schools were reduced by 90% between 2004 and the end of the 2009-2010 school year.

On heels of that program, beverage companies also voluntarily added calorie labels to the front of all cans, bottles and beverage multipacks, in support of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Gindlesperger added.

In 2012, American beverage companies rolled out the Calories Count vending program in the municipal buildings in Chicago and San Antonio, which adds calorie counts to vending machine selection buttons. The initiative launched in Washington DC in May 2013, and ABA intends to roll it out nationwide within the next year.

“We’re really drawing people’s attention to calorie counts,” Gindlesperger said. “If you look at this leadership platform we’ve been building, it speaks to how quickly industry can move and act. Often times, when you get communities, government and industry together with other stakeholders, things can be implemented much quicker than public policy.”

While Gindlesperger calls the overturn of the New York City soda ban a win, he notes that a number of other cities (from Telluride, CO, to Richmond, CA) are mulling soda taxes or outright bans, though none have passed.  

We have a very active and connected group of activists in public health arena who try year after year to pass soda taxes in venues across country,” he said. “Looking at 2014, obviously taxes, bans and regulatory issues are something we’ll encounter. In the context of the broader debate, lawmakers have really moved on from taxes and bans onto real solutions, like what I described earlier [i.e., voluntary labeling efforts by the industry]. People are smart enough to decide for themselves what to eat and drink. Government should play role in education, but restricting size won’t fly.”

Snack food industry: Navigating trans fat compliance and finding a solution to the GMO labeling debate

With the FDA’s recent crackdown on trans fats as well the introduction of sodium and acrylamide reduction initiatives, the snack food industry continues to monitor timelines for compliance. But it’s also keeping an eye on hot-button issues in the New Year, from GMO labeling to the farm bill and the specter of a snack tax, said David Walsh, manager of marketing and member services at the Snack Foods Association (SFA).

Among notable wins, the FDA’s recently issued acrylamide draft guidance document “included many of the best practices from the snack food industry’s toolkit,” he said. The guidance has been referred to as perhaps too tentative or lenient in tone compared to the EU’s harder stance of setting upper limits for the carcinogen in foods.

“The FDA has given the industry a laundry list of recommendations that are pretty softly worded. Which ones matter? And what’s the return on investment? That part is not very clear,” Hyman, Phelps and McNamara FTC and FDA regulatory counsel Ricardo Carvajal told FNU after the guidance was issued.

Additionally, SFA members have taken steps to voluntarily reduce trans fats in products over the past few years, though Walsh noted that the FDA’s tentative decision to remove PHOs/trans fats from the GRAS list presents a challenge for manufacturers as it involves creation of a deadline for compliance.

“We urge the FDA to approach the issue in a science-based manner and to allow for adequate time for companies to meet voluntary thresholds,” he said.

For now, snack food manufacturers appear to be winning the war on GMO labeling. The industry prevented most major state and local GMO labeling initiatives from passage—most notably Washington State’s I-522 in support of front-of-pack GMO labeling, which was largely bankrolled by five out-of-state corporations and a trade group. But the fight is far from over, as consumers clamor for more transparency on food labels. Walsh added that the industry continues to “explore a federal solution to provide consumers the information they seek on GMO ingredients in foods.”

In the coming year, SFA lists the potential for a snack tax, nutrition facts panel reform and sodium reduction among its top concerns. In addition, snack food companies will also closely monitor the progress of the highly contested farm bill which failed to pass in 2013. Earlier this year, SFA, in concert with other industry associations and the anti-hunger community, prevented farm bill language from restricting certain foods in the national food stamp program (SNAP).

“The farm bill is a major agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government that encompasses not only agriculture commodity programs, but also conservation programs, rural development, bio-energy and trade,” Walsh said. 

Read PART 1 of the 2014 regulatory outlook here.

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