WASHINGTON — The way nutritional information is displayed on food is “simply not acceptable,” First Lady Michelle Obama declared on Thursday as she endorsed an administration effort that would force the food industry to more clearly label the amount of fat, sugar and salt in its products.
“As consumers and as parents, we have a right to understand what’s in the food we’re feeding our families,” Obama said from the East Room of the White House at an announcement of the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed changes to the nutrition facts panel.
“This isn’t a particularly radical idea; in fact, it seems pretty obvious. But the truth is that too often, it’s nearly impossible to get the most basic facts about the food we buy for our families,” she said.
For the first lady, the moment marked a clear return to a more contentious corner of the food politics landscape after an extended absence. In the four years since launching her Let’s Move campaign, Obama has positioned herself as the most visible anti-obesity advocate in the country. But she at times has steered clear of issues that spark friction with the powerful food industry, in favor of developing less controversial partnerships that make sunnier headlines and fewer enemies.
But Thursday’s announcement sets up a near-certain fight over the little black-and-white box posted on more 700,000 products — and makes Obama a player.
Nutrition advocates have long argued that existing labels are out of date and misleading. In calling for the first redesign in 20 years, the FDA appears to embrace many of their key priorities — including updated serving sizes, larger type fonts and information on added sugars. Those proposals are likely to meet opposition from industry groups.
Within the White House, the East Wing’s corporate partnership strategy has largely been viewed as a success and even a model for the president’s advisors as they look for ways to make an impact on pet issues without going through Congress.
Still, Obama has been signaling she’s willing to break out of that mold in her husband’s second term. Last fall, the first lady convened a meeting on marketing food to children — taking on one of the most controversial topics in food policy and one she was criticized for dodging in 2009 when an administration proposal aimed at curbing advertising targeting kids came under fire in Congress.
Obama this week, celebrating the four-year anniversary of Let’s Move, hailed new limits on how food companies can market in schools. The rules, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bar companies from advertising at schools or school fundraisers products such as soda and candy bars that they aren’t allowed to sell in school cafeterias or vending machines.
Obama and her team had downplayed that sort of compulsory, regulatory action, mindful that such moves inevitably stir up criticism from those who see government reaching too far into personal lives.
Nutrition advocates noted that regulatory efforts such as a rule limiting junk food sales in schools appeared frozen during the high campaign season of 2012. But with the reelection behind them, the Obama White House, led by the East Wing, has been moving quickly on food policy.
“I think this week showcases the kind of work she’s been doing to fight obesity for years,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But I can’t think of a week where there were two major policy announcements that our organization has worked a long time. If you get one or two a year you’re doing well.”
The first lady’s office had a role in shepherding these policies through the process, although they were crafted in the agencies, officials said. The nutrition facts proposal moved swiftly through the final approval process, after more than a decade of study.
A senior administration official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, attributed the timing to enthusiasm within the administration for the effort, calling it “a top priority, so we’re excited to get it out.”
Sam Kass, Let’s Move! executive director, described the announcement as the “result of a collaboration across White House offices and throughout the administration.”
“The first lady has been a leader in making a priority providing simple and easy to understand information so Americans can make the best and most informed decisions possible for their families,” Kass said. “Her leadership, along with the leadership of people across this country, is helping to forge a healthier new norm in this country.”
For the past three years, with little hope of legislation passing a divided Congress, Let’s Move! has largely focused on agreements with major companies, including Walmart, Darden restaurants and, recently, Subway.
In return for promises to take steps aimed at reducing obesity, the companies often win publicity and the high-value praise of a first lady who knows how to work the celebrity circuit.
Obama’s anniversary week showed off her media prowess with appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” “Extra,” “The Rachael Ray Show” and the “Today” show. Amy Poehler, of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” introduced the first lady at a parks and recreation center in Miami. Will Ferrell joined in to conduct a “focus group” of elementary school kids with the first lady in a video that circulated online.
As expected, Obama used the appearances to promote her campaign and the administration’s new policy efforts. Whether she will keep up the public push as the fight heats up over the nutrition label is not clear. The proposed nutrition label rule will be up for public debate for 90 days before being finalized.
While the initial industry response was mild on Thursday, most experts expect the food companies to oppose elements of the proposal, including the requirement that manufacturers label the amount of sugars added to foods. The redesign of labels alone is expected to cost the industry $2 billion, FDA officials said.
In her remarks Thursday, Obama said she was prepared for disagreement and suggested the White House was open to negotiation, as she stated her priorities for the final proposal. The calorie count should be easier to spot and the box should include information about whether sugars were added during processing, she said.
“Now, I know there will be many opinions on what this label should look like, but I think that we all can agree that families deserve more and better information about the food they eat,” she said. “We are nowhere near the end of this road, but with every little bit that we do, we make a huge difference.”