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Michael F. Jacobson Headshot

Time to Sweep Up the Confetti and Start Saving Lives

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As President Obama prepares for his second term, he should finish the food policy work he started in his first.

Early in what we can now call his "first" term, President Barack Obama carved out an ambitious agenda on food policy. In January 2011, the President signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act -- landmark reform legislation designed to keep salmonella, E. coli, and other dangerous pathogens out of the food supply. Requiring more oversight of the factories, fields, and packing houses from whence much of our food comes, the bill was supported by consumer groups, victims of foodborne illness, and much of the food industry itself. The law required the Food and Drug Administration to draft, offer for public comment, and then finalize regulations governing recalls, imports, produce safety, and more.

Perhaps not wanting to appear overly "regulatory" or "anti-business" during a heated campaign, the administration had basically signaled to consumer advocates that they should expect to wait until "after the election" to see these important food safety rules. And so in January of 2012, when a rule instructing retailers how best to alert consumers about food recalls was due, nothing happened. And in July, when a rule requiring hazard-control plans at food manufacturing facilities came due, again -- nothing. Meanwhile, outbreaks and recalls of contaminated food continued apace, including an outbreak of salmonella linked to raw tuna, which sickened 425 people and hospitalized 55 this summer, and outbreaks linked to salmonella-contaminated cantaloupe, mangoes, and peanut butter this fall, sickening hundreds more.

The administration has acted with greater speed carrying out many of the regulatory provisions in its signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." But one nutrition-related provision of that important bill has not yet been finalized: the section requiring calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. Even as some big chains (including McDonald's) acted on their own to implement the law, officials basically have been sitting on proposed regulations that spell out the nitty gritty details of how to (and who should) comply with the law. Again, health advocates were told to expect the final requirements sometime -- you guessed it -- "after the election."

Also stuck at the White House are proposed standards for foods sold in school vending machines and other venues outside the school meal programs. The Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act would not have passed without the support of both the president and the first lady. Yet this important provision to get soda and junk food out of schools has been held hostage by the elections. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is done writing the standards, so the White House should be able to release the proposed rule in the next few weeks.

Stuck elsewhere at the FDA, with details not disclosed, are important measures regarding two of the most harmful chemicals in food. The FDA needs to order the food industry to stop using partially-hydrogenated oil, with its artery-clogging trans fat. While many companies have stopped using the harmful fat, others, such as Marie Callender's, Pop Secret, and Pillsbury still employ it.

And an even greater danger is that posed by high levels of sodium in packaged and restaurant foods. Researchers have estimated that reducing those levels by 50 percent would save about 100,000 lives per year. More than two years ago, the prestigious Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that companies had ignored numerous government recommendations since 1969 to reduce sodium levels in their products. Hence, the IOM recommended that the FDA set binding limits on sodium. The FDA has done virtually nothing to protect the public's health.

The president should be congratulated on his historic victory. He and first lady Michelle Obama have been important advocates for progress on nutrition, obesity, school meals, food safety, and more. But it's time to sweep up the confetti and finish the important work on food policy that's been left hanging in the balance during the campaign. And the administration should use the next four years to pursue even more aggressive initiatives that make our food supply safer, our kids better protected from junk-food marketers, and our diets healthier.

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