I’m sure we were all expecting a crackdown on food safety enforcement under the new administration. With the recent high-profile recalls of peanuts and pistachios, and going a bit further back, spinach and green onions, consumers are looking to their government for improved oversight to renew their trust in wholesome food products.
I’ve long said that dairy should be used as an example to the rest, for its excellent food safety record based on meticulous practices over many, many years. Even so, more consistency in regulation is needed, especially from an industry like dairy that falls under the purview of more than one agency, depending on the product and its exact ingredients.
So improvements in how food safety policies are administered would be welcome. But so far, we’ve only heard saber-rattling. And for some reason, the government has chosen to take aim at one of the American cupboard’s most beloved products.
The FDA, in its infinite and overreaching wisdom, has decided that Cheerios, in marketing itself as a food shown to lower cholesterol when eaten as part of a sensible diet, is positioning itself as a drug, and is therefore misbranded. The federal agency has ordered General Mills, maker of Cheerios, to change its package messaging by a deadline that came around the time this issue went to press.
Apparently it doesn’t matter that the FDA itself approved Cheerios’ soluble fiber health claim a dozen years ago, and that the cereal maker used proven science to back up its additional claim of lowered cholesterol after eating Cheerios for a specified time.
The implications of this idiotic order are dire for a food industry that seeks to position itself as the solution for, rather than be branded as the cause of, our nation’s supposed nutritional crisis. Am I mistaken, or isn’t the government the chief handwringer in this “crisis”? Is it not the entity issuing nutritional guidelines that folks should follow in order to maintain good health, avoid unnecessary medical treatments and otherwise beat the reaper?
If so, then how other than bold, clear marketing of what’s good for you will consumers be led toward more foods that can stave off potential ills so they won’t have to resort to costly prescription medications? Or perhaps that’s exactly what the FDA and its friends in the pharmaceutical industry want.
So if the FDA ends up getting its way with Cheerios, what does that mean for the health claims of other foods, such as Cheerios’ longtime close friend, milk? All of the dairy industry’s years of research and marketing dollars into dairy calcium’s link to weight management, for example, could be for naught if this short-sighted agency decides such health claims turn food into drugs.
Further research into dairy’s other health benefits for potential packaging claims, along with benefits derived from functional ingredients added to dairy foods, could be rendered fruitless. The dairy industry needs to prepare itself to defend its wellness-based marketing efforts from such excessive bureaucratic meddling.
Or, if you’re even more cynical, could it be that, at a time when big corporations are looked upon as evil and profit is a dirty word, the administration is looking to take Big G down a peg? As General Mills CEO Ken Powell was quoted on Alibaba.com: “Despite the recession, consumers are still willing to pay a premium for brand-name products they like. Retailers are also willing to accept high prices, which also mean more profit, if they can see that a brand offers advantages over a low-priced store brand.”
Be that as it may, the message the FDA is sending is that it doesn’t matter if you play by the rules and carefully follow the government’s defined procedure for making on-package claims – sooner or later you’re going to get torpedoed by an agency looking to win points with the boss, his friends or the buzzing gnats over at CSPI.
Perhaps instead of looking for problems where none truly exist, the FDA – the agency that allowed products such as Vioxx, Bextra and Zelnorm to reach the market – should concentrate on getting its own house in order.
June 1, 2009