business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Washington Post reports that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) efforts "to update the current definition of 'healthy' - manufacturers would only be able to use the term "if they contain a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the main food groups such as fruit, vegetable or dairy, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines," and would be required to "adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars" - are facing strong resistance from a number of manufacturers.

The opposing argument, the Post writes, is that under the proposed new rules, almost no products currently labeled as "healthy" would be allowed to do so.

One example - Conagra's Healthy Choice frozen meals and entrees, which "have been a go-to for people in a rush who want to eat something convenient but seemingly good for them. Chicken parm, sweet and sour chicken — microwaves around the country are humming with them right now. The brand represents 60 percent of sales of all products labeled as 'healthy' in the market today, with more than 200 million meals sold last year."

In comments submitted to the FDA last month, the Post writes, Conagra said that "it is our strong conviction that if FDA’s proposal is adopted in its current form, companies like Conagra will have every incentive to shift their innovation efforts away from products labeled as ‘healthy’ and towards less healthy options."

According to the story, "Dozens of other food manufacturers and industry organizations have joined Conagra in claiming the new standards are draconian and will result in most current food products not making the cut, or in unappealing product reformulations."

The Post writes that "the Consumer Brands Association, which represents 1,700 major food companies from General Mills to Pepsi, wrote a 54-page comment to the FDA in which it stated the proposed rule was overly restrictive and would result in a framework that would automatically disqualify a vast majority of packaged foods.

"'We are particularly concerned by the overly stringent proposed added sugars thresholds. We appreciate FDA’s interest in assessing added sugars intake. We believe, however, that FDA’s restrictive approach to added sugars content in foods described as healthy is unwarranted and outside FDA’s authority given the lack of scientific consensus on the relationship between sugar intake and diet-related disease,' the association stated.

"The proposed rule, if finalized, they said, would violate the First Amendment rights of food companies and could harm both consumers and manufacturers."

KC's View:

I struggle with this.  "Healthy" isn't exactly an absolute term.  Some products, even if not perfect, certainly are healthier than others.

And I can understand why Conagra is more than a little concerned, since "Healthy" is the name of the brand.

But the FDA's job isn't to protect brands.  It is to protect consumers/citizens, and that's a good thing.  A tension between business and government, in this case, is a good thing.  "Overly stringent" may be how the CBA and its members would characterize the FDA's approach to added sugars, but if it is a threshold supported by medical science, then that ought to be the bottom line.

I am chagrined that Conagra's reaction to the debate is that if it doesn't get its own way it simply will focus on making less healthy foods, rather than work on figuring out how to make its "healthy" foods healthier.