February's Furious Foray Against Food Freedom

February 2014 may go down as the worst month for food freedom since the height of the New Deal era.


I'll begin here: February 2014 may go down as the worst month for food freedom since the New Deal era.

The lowlights began with President Obama signing a new trillion-dollar Farm Bill into law. The bill had stalled for two years while lawmakers wrangled over possible cuts. And while this Farm Bill eliminates the pointless direct subsidies paid to farmers, the new law is rife with crop insurance subsidies that will cost taxpayers untold billions.

Soon after, word came that tort lawyers were busy pitching attorneys general in sixteen states on the idea of a broad lawsuit to "make the food industry pay for soaring obesity-related health care costs."

If this sounds familiar, it should. These lawyers are doing nothing more than taking a page out of their own Big Tobacco playbook. What's more, they tried this same approach against the food industry in the early 2000s. It rightly failed.

The same week that news broke of lawyers itching to cash in on the food industry, California legislators proposed adding a warning label to all sweetened drinks like soda sold in the state. The absurd requirement—in the state that practically invented them—would mean these beverages "would be required to carry warning labels for obesity, diabetes and tooth decay."

In case you're begging for it all to end, this month of hell gets worse. The Los Angeles Times reported last week on the mounting concern among farmers across the country—concerns I've raised many times, including here—that the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act final rules will put many small, organic farmers out of business.

"Over the summer, the owner of the last working farm in Akron, Ohio, which had been supplying produce to locals for 117 years, said he was throwing in the towel and blamed the FDA's new rules," reports the paper. "Don Bessemer told the Akron Beacon Journal that he was up for fighting pests and even drought, but not bureaucrats. Thirty workers lost jobs."

I've spoken with other small farmers who are getting out of the business. And this is before the final rules have even been written.

As this last week of February began, there was still more bad news.

First Lady Michelle Obama announced changes in school food that are timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of her Let's Move program.

The provision grabbing most headlines around school food this week was the First Lady's proposed elimination of some food marketing from schools. While I think that mandate is well outside power of the federal government, I have little or no problem with the policy itself.

What I oppose strongly, though, is a nefarious but underreported parallel proposal to expand the federal school lunch pogrom.

Problems with the USDA's revised school lunch program are as widely known as they are widespread. I've written about them here, for example. And a new GAO report found that last year's disastrous rollout of the updated National School Lunch Program (which Mrs. Obama also championed) helped drive 1.6 million paying students from the lunch rolls.

Rather than moving to scrap the program for all but the neediest (or, better, encouraging parents to reclaim control of their kids' lunches), the administration is doubling down on a new plan that would result in a dramatic expansion of the number of students who are eligible for free lunches and breakfast—even though they are perfectly able to pay for their meals.

The change "will provide free breakfast and lunch to all students in schools where at least 40 percent of the children are low-income," notes the Washington Post in the last sentence of an 850-word report on the school food announcements this week. "The move is designed to increase participation in the free meals program and to relieve the paperwork burden on schools and is expected to affect 22,000 schools nationwide."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was quick to hail the plan, noting those tens of thousands of schools "will soon be able to provide healthier, free meals to all of their students."

Healthier? Healthier than what, exactly?

I'm not a nutritionist. But here are some of the school lunch offerings in my rather-well-off community of Montgomery County, Maryland for the month of February: whole grain chicken patty sandwich with tater tots, whole grain cheese or pepperoni pizza, hot dog with tater tots, french toast sticks with sausage, mac 'n cheese with whole grain chicken bites, whole grain chicken nuggets with blueberry bread.

So where do Americans—we who eat too many calories—get our calories? As I noted here two years ago here, the USDA's own list of the "Top 25 sources of calories among Americans ages 2 years and older" finds that the top three sources of calories in our diets are grain-based desserts, bread, and chicken. In other words, precisely the foods found on those "healthier," reformulated USDA school lunch menus.

The final assault on food freedom this month came on Thursday, when Mrs. Obama announced the FDA would update its Nutrition Facts panels for the first time in 20 years.

The transformation is largely cosmetic. Many serving sizes would change, reports the New York Times. Some words would move around, while others would be abbreviated. "Percent daily values would shift to the left," reports the Times, and the words "Daily Value" would be replaced with "DV". And "added sugars" would have to appear underneath total sugars (although they are exactly the same substance). And while the FDA looks set to ban most trans fats altogether, the words curiously still appear on the newly proposed Nutrition Facts panel.

These changes will add billions in new packaging and labeling costs for food and beverage manufacturers, many who have already updated their own packages to—among other things—slap the number of calories their foods contain right on the front of the package.

Big changes?

FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg touted the new labels as "an amazing transformation," reports the Times. Food regulation advocate Prof. Marion Nestle labeled herself "kind of stunned actually."

Others, like me, were less than impressed.

"This is a false victory," Prof. Barry Popkin told the Times. "It will affect just a small segment of consumers who carefully study nutrition fact panels."

As the year began, I predicted in a Fox News column that supporters of food freedom would face considerable hurdles in 2014. But even I couldn't have imagined that the year would bring so many challenges. And so fast. With more than 300 days left in the year—and crackdowns on caffeine, salt, trans fats, and other foods and food ingredients looming—I'm ready for this year of false victories to be over.