Congressional Republicans are seeking to undo food safety and nutrition regulations from the Obama era, this time with policy riders tacked onto the agriculture spending bill.
The Republican-controlled Congress has been employing a rarely used statute, the Congressional Review Act, to repeal 14 Obama administration regulations since January, covering areas as varied as OSHA recordkeeping and gun sales to the severely mentally ill. Now lawmakers are turning to appropriations riders to go after regulations falling outside the Congressional Review Act’s scope.
And rules implementing some of former first lady Michele Obama’s signature school lunch nutrition initiatives are among those targeted by House Republicans. The House spending bill scheduled for an Appropriations Committee markup on July 12 would rescind a ban on low-fat flavored milk in school lunches, block requirements for whole grains and lower sodium foods, and prevent the Food and Drug Administration from deeming as “unsafe” the partially hydrogenated oils that are a major source of trans-fats linked to cardiovascular disease.
“For those who thought the regulatory reform debate was limited to the executive branch and the administration’s one-in, two-out executive order, Congress is proving it has plenty of power to curtail past rules,” Sam Batkins of the American Action Forum said in an analysis published July 6. “It can do so in a way that is faster than the regulatory process, and in some instances, far more durable than repeal through the executive branch.”
If they survive the appropriations process, the riders would be a victory for the School Nutrition Association, which represents school cafeteria operators across the country. The group contends many schools were having trouble meeting the requirements set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (Pub. L. No. 111-296) while also giving students food they would actually eat.
“Schools that are making progress can continue to do so and schools that are really facing challenges and finding that kids are walking away from the school cafeteria can have more time,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the group.
Sodexo Inc. and Aramark Corp. are among the food management companies that operate school lunch operations and have reported lobbying on food safety and agriculture spending issues this year. Food companies that reported lobbying on farm spending and food safety issues include Kellogg Co., Land O’Lakes Inc., and Nestle SA.
Many congressional Republicans have attacked federal nutrition standards as an example of government overreach, despite polling by the Pew Charitable Trusts that found that an overwhelming majority of American parents—including Republicans—supported federal nutrition standards.
In May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he would continue providing waivers to schools unable to meet the whole grain requirements in the act and would delay the deadline for meeting sodium reduction targets. Low-fat flavored milk was also allowed back on school cafeteria menus where only non-fat flavored milk had been allowed after the standards were implemented. Riders in the agriculture bill would uphold these policies by barring any federal spending to carry out the rules.
Colin Schwartz, a nutrition policy expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the language in the bill represents a step backward.
“School meals were woefully out of date with the science of healthy nutrition for kids” before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, he said. Schwartz said there were better ways to get schoolchildren to consume healthier foods, such as making meal periods longer and getting kids involved in taste-testing new foods.
“It has very little to do with the nutrition standards,” said Schwartz.
Another rider would effectively repeal a 2015 FDA rule on partially hydrogenated oils. The original rule removed the FDA’s designation of the oils as “generally recognized as safe,” giving the food industry until June 18, 2018, to phase them out.
The agriculture spending bill rider would instead prohibit them from being deemed unsafe at all.
An additional rider would exempt cigars and e-cigarettes from FDA regulation. Tobacco and vaping products have been under FDA authority since 2009, when Congress enacted the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Pub. L. No. 111-31)
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