For as much as it gets criticized for being ineffective, the FDA sure has its fingerprints on everything this week:

  • The mishandling of the infant formula debacle.
  • The labeling of salt, milk, meat and seeds got a closer look.
  • Elsewhere, the organizing of unions threatened employers.

‘Diminished Confidence’

Additional safety recalls and a U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Subcommittee on Health and Financial Services probe have double-teamed the FDA amid its handling of ongoing issues with infant formula. We generally try to capture all sides of an issue, but this time there’s only one.

  • On February 28, Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s former deputy secretary for food safety who resigned in February, testified before the congressional committee. The Wall Street Journal summarized Yiannas’ description of FDA’s slow response to 2022’s Abbott Nutrition/Similac recall: “Despite a whistleblower submitting a detailed complaint in late October 2021 outlining steps Abbott had taken to allegedly falsify records and deceive regulators, FDA officials didn’t interview the person until late December.”
  • Consumer Reports Director of Food Policy Brian Ronholm provided a written statement to the U.S. House committee critical of Abbott Nutrition, the FDA’s faulty handling of the situation and the FDA in general: “A significant reason for the diminished confidence is that the FDA food program has second class status within the agency and it has resulted in serious problems relating to its structure, governance and performance.”
  • Writing for Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich criticized the FDA’s mishandling of the more recent Reckitt infant formula recall: “The revelation that this recall took months to announce comes more than a year after a massive infant formula recall from Abbott Nutrition, renewing questions about FDA’s oversight of formula and whether enough has changed in the wake of this crisis to prevent another one.”
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest probed deeper and posted a detailed “cause and effects” analysis of the situation, beginning with Abbott’s failure to report the first detection of contamination up to the most recent attempts to handle contaminations and shortages. “Americans deserve a food program that is transparent, effective, and accountable. The formula crisis laid bare the high level of dysfunction, breakdowns in communication and lack of clear lines of authority that characterized the agency’s response.”
  • On the same day as the hearing, the FDA released a national strategy for protecting the safety of infant formula and helping the resiliency of the formula market supply. Embattled FDA Commissioner Robert Califf tweeted, “Our team will continue working around the clock to resolve the current supply challenges as quickly as possible.” And, oh yes, the comments are brutal.

“FDA could choose to do nothing about it, and doing nothing was a task in which FDA excelled.”

Alan Bjerga, SVP of Communications, National Milk Producers Federation

Standard of Identity Crisis

An 85-year-old regulatory framework got an update, but progress on one front only amplified labeling needs on others. Salt, milk, meat and seeds all earned attention around defining their identity.

  • On March 24, the FDA announced an update that will allow the use of salt substitutes in place of salt for foods covered by a standard of identity. FDA Commissioner Robert Califf framed the move as a way to “improve nutrition and reduce chronic disease.”
  • The update comes just two weeks after the World Health Organization projected that overconsumption of salt will lead to 7 million deaths worldwide by 2030.
  • Standards of identity were established in 1939 to combat food adulteration — setting minimum amounts of fruit in jam or the kinds of dairy used to make certain cheeses, etc. — and 80 standards include salt as an ingredient. Dave Fusaro of Food Processing noted that the change will allow food makers to better comply with voluntary sodium reduction targets that the FDA set in 2021.
  • Standards of identity have been at the center of another labeling dispute over the past five years: meat and dairy alternatives. Alan Bjerga of National Milk Producers Federation argued that plant-based offerings clearly violate the standard of identity of milk, but “FDA could choose to do nothing about it, and doing nothing was a task in which FDA excelled.”
  • Poultry processor Perdue Farms petitioned the USDA to create a stronger distinction between “free range” and “pasture-raised” label claims (Food Safety News). Perdue claims that the current definitions overlap in current standards.
  • MIT researchers have developed a method of labeling seeds with silk to combat counterfeiting. The report noted: “counterfeit seeds are a significant factor in crop yields that average less than one-fifth of the potential for maize, and less than one-third for rice.”

Unions Go for Bust

Starbucks took the spotlight as exiting-CEO Howard Schultz testified in Congress, but it’s been a busy fortnight across the board for unions and other worker advocacy groups:

  • The union-busting practices that landed Starbucks in hot water | PBS NewsHour
  • Starbucks leader grilled by Senate over anti-union actions | The Associated Press
  • Why Chipotle got caught union-busting | Nation’s Restaurant News
  • Cargo ships leave West Coast ports as labor talks show ‘little to no’ progress | The Scoop
  • Farmworkers demand Publix, Kroger, Wendy’s back the Fair Food Program | Democracy Now!
  • The workers behind two popular Food Network shows are unionizing | Eater
  • Oakland Trader Joe’s first in California to file for union election | Los Angeles Times
  • Vilsack: USDA strapped by low staff salaries | Agri-Pulse

Worth Reading

Post-extinction Protein

NPR reported that Vow, a producer of cultivated meat, unveiled a meatball created from the genetics of a long-extinct woolly mammoth on March 28. Vow founder Tim Noakesmith explained that, while the lone meatball was not eaten, “the aroma was something similar to another prototype that we produced before, which was crocodile.” On March 31, Food Ingredients First reported that Paleo contested Vow’s claims to the meatball production, alleging patent infringement. Legal battle or not, this was a mammoth waste of food.

Cool, Plasma!

Food waste and loss is prevalent all along the supply chain. Clean Crop Technologies CEO Dan White told AgFunder News that he has a solution for post-harvest crops: “We solve this problem by using electricity to generate ionized gases [sic] to preferentially break down the microbes that drive most of this waste, without harming the quality [of the food] in the process.”

Fat Bargains

Supermarket News summarized The Urban Institute’s latest research that looked at the correlation between where people shop and obesity rates. The research “explored how access to different types of retail food stores — which may in turn shape the foods that consumers choose — varies widely across the U.S., with particular attention to areas with higher rates of obesity.” According to the research, relying on pharmacies and dollar stores as a primary food source had particularly negative consequences on health.

Bloody, Buddy?

Modern Farmer celebrated the revival of Bloody Butcher corn, a dark maroon variety that was on the brink of extinction until some craft distillers on the U.S. east coast kindled its popularity. “The flavors and nuances it is bringing back to the bourbon industry has had craft bourbon and rye professionals taking another look at this almost-lost corn.”

Sweet Nostalgia

Who remembers Hershey’s TasteTations? The Reggie Bar? How about Dweebs? What about more obscure treats like Pearson’s Seven Up with its seven different sections? This week, YouTuber Rhetty for History chronicled deserted and forgotten candies. The weirdest entry was clearly Chicken Dinner, a chocolate bar that graced shelves from 1924-1962. The video also fueled the rumor that 80’s favorite Bonkers candies may make a return to the market. Thank the stars that the Salted Nut Roll (another Pearson’s treat) remains strong.