Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Column

Trump's answer to the obesity epidemic: Here, have a cookie

The most attention-getting news out of the food industry last week was Amazon’s announcement Friday that it’s buying Whole Foods for nearly $14 billion. But that wasn’t the most important news.

The most important news was a largely overlooked announcement from the Trump administration that it’s bowing to the wishes of food companies — and ignoring the pleas of scientific and medical experts — by giving industry players more time to push sugary treats on an increasingly blubbery nation.

The Food and Drug Administration said it will delay implementation of planned food-labeling requirements intended to help consumers better understand how much added sugar they’re taking in and how many calories are being added to their bellies.

The agency said it was responding to “significant concerns” from “numerous stakeholders” about their ability to meet a deadline of July 26, 2018, plus an additional 12 months for smaller food companies.

“The agency is mindful of the importance of balancing its mission of protecting public health with the practicalities of implementing the amended labeling requirements,” it said in a statement.

If that was the case, though, the FDA wouldn’t just leave the public hanging as to when the new food labels would take effect. Yet when I asked Deborah Kotz, an agency spokeswoman, how long the delay would be, she was unable to answer.

“Any additional detail regarding the extension will be forthcoming when the extension is officially announced in the Federal Register,” she told me.

When will that be?

“We can’t comment on the timing.”

I took that as, “Don’t hold your breath.”

The food-labeling rollback is just one of numerous moves by the Trump administration to override measures introduced by former President Obama.

Trump and Republican lawmakers are now trying to do away with consumer protections put in place after the financial meltdown of 2008. And as I reported last week, the Trump administration also wants to take away the right of people to sue nursing homes.

Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, said it’s not hard to see why the administration has placed a seemingly indefinite hold on better informing consumers about what they’re eating.

“There’s been a lot of lobbying from food companies,” he said. “They’re worried about having to disclose added sugar.”

O’Hara is no stranger to food policy. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as the FDA’s associate commissioner for public affairs.

He pointed me toward a letter submitted in March by food-industry trade groups to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. The groups called for a delay in the new disclosure requirements until at least 2021 “in order to ease the regulatory burden on the economy.”

Signatories included some of the sweetest industries out there, including the American Bakers Assn., the Corn Refiners Assn., the National Confectioners Assn., the Juice Products Assn., the Assn. for Dressings and Sauces and the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., which speaks on behalf of more than 250 individual food and beverage companies.

“These associations represent a lot of sugar,” O’Hara said.

Separately, Price received a letter in May from scientists and academics, and another letter last week from dozens of healthcare, educational and consumer groups, calling for the food-label rule to be implemented on schedule next year.

The health secretary — who was a doctor before he became a full-time politician — apparently found the food industry’s pitch more persuasive.

The food-labeling requirements were announced last year as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to address America’s obesity epidemic. More than a third of U.S. adults are obese, creating greater risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“The new label will make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices,” the FDA said last year.

Planned changes include a larger type size for calories and disclosure of “added sugars” in grams and as a percentage of recommended daily allotment.

The Trump administration, in delaying the labeling requirements, is putting corporate profits ahead of public interest.

It revealed a similar priority in May when it announced the delay of a requirement that restaurant chains include calorie counts and other nutritional info on menus. That rule was supposed to take effect last month. Now it won’t happen until next year at the earliest.

Cary Kreutzer, an assistant professor at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology and Keck School of Medicine, said Trump seems determined to undo many of the nutritional initiatives undertaken by former First Lady Michelle Obama, who made reducing America’s waistline her top priority.

“We know from evidence that when people better understand food labels, they make better choices,” Kreutzer said.

By delaying the more informative labels, she said, “people will keep making the poor food choices that they’re making now.” Kreutzer added that “we know sugar is a huge problem.”

Some food companies and restaurants already have adopted the new disclosure requirements. Others, such as candy maker Mars Inc., say they’d have no trouble hitting the originally planned deadline of next summer.

But most industry players seem intent on buying as much time as they can to keep Americans in the dark about all the added sugar they consume (which is about 94 grams, or 358 calories daily, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the same as drinking 2 ½ cans of Coke).

Pamela G. Bailey, head of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., said in a statement that food and beverage companies remain committed to updating their labels to better inform consumers. But delaying the disclosure requirement, she said, “will reduce consumer confusion and costs.”

What it won’t reduce is the massive economic toll being taken on the country. The CDC estimates that obesity-related medical expenses and lost productivity cost the United States more than $147 billion annually.

Enjoy your cookie, America. You’re paying for it.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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