Signed, Sealed, Delayed? The New Fate of the Added Sugar Rule and Other Safeguards

June 14, 2017 | 3:38 pm
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The FDA announced this week that it “intends to extend compliance dates” for the nutrition facts label final rules, which will include the separate line for added sugars. We celebrated the finalization of this rule last May as science-based advocacy prevailing to give consumers key information on the foods they consume. While the FDA has not yet announced exactly how long that extension will push back implementation, the food industry has asked HHS Secretary Tom Price to delay the rule’s enforcement three years, until May 2021.

But do food manufacturers really need even more time to help them, as FDA puts it, “to complete and print updated nutrition facts labels for their products,” or are they using this delay tactic to keep consumers from knowing how much sugar is in their food as long as possible? FDA first began its work to revise the nutrition facts label in 2004, and the proposed rule which included the added sugar line was issued in 2014. Industry has had ten years to think about how it could give consumers the information they want to make informed decisions and ten years to come to terms with the mounting evidence that excessive sugar consumption can lead to adverse health consequences including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

The longer we delay giving consumers the knowledge and power to make informed decisions about the foods they buy and eat, the longer we are missing out on an opportunity to improve Americans’ overall health. Since this rule was first proposed in 2014, representatives from food industry trade organizations, including the Sugar Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the American Frozen Food Institute, have made inaccurate claims about the science linking sugar consumption to adverse health impacts, the ability of labeling to positively impact consumer health, and the burden of technical challenges and excessive record-keeping in measuring added sugar for food companies.

If instead of spending time and resources coming up with reasons the FDA shouldn’t have issued its final rule, the food industry had accepted established science on added sugars and proactively worked with the FDA to roll out the label, most foods would be bearing these labels today. In fact, some companies have already updated their labels well before the compliance date, showing how very possible it is!

All of the protest and delay has only made consumers skeptical of food companies that appear to be actively working to undermine a rule that would empower them with knowledge of how much sugar has been added to their foods. This move from Scott Gottlieb’s FDA is a disappointing step backward from progress made in food label transparency during the Obama administration. And sadly, the added sugar rule is just one of many that has recently been thwarted by agency delay under the Trump Administration.

The latest policy targets of industry’s stalling tactics

Just this week, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt issued a final rule that would delay implementation of the Risk Management Plan (RMP) amendments for 20 months, until February 19, 2019. This move came after several petitions from the American Chemistry Council and a handful of other chemical manufacturing corporations, oil and gas companies, and trade organizations asked the agency to reconsider the rule. Even after receiving thousands of public comments, including those from individuals from low-income communities and communities of color that face the greatest risks from RMP facilities urging the EPA to enforce the rule as planned, the EPA sided with industry and went forward with its decision to delay.

Then there’s the ozone rule. My colleague, Gretchen Goldman, wrote a letter to Scott Pruitt after the EPA administrator announced that he would extending the deadline for promulgating the rule one year due to “insufficient information.” Perhaps Pruitt has been spending too much time with oil and gas industry lobbyists, because the science is actually more than sufficient on the need for a stronger ozone standard, including a 1,251-page Integrated Science Assessment that found several “causal” and “likely causal” relationships between ozone pollution and health effects, confirmed by a slew of independent advisory committees and independent scientists since the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) recommended tightening the standard a decade ago.

Speaking of rules that are long overdue but are being delayed anyway, the silica rule, beryllium rule, and formaldehyde rule that would have tightened standards that have been too low for decades have been targeted by this administration for further delay so that the construction industry, manufacturing industry, and oil and gas industry have more time to educate employees and change internal practices. You read that right. Even though the science on impacts of silica has been known since the 1970s, the industry still needs time to inform its own employees about it.

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, which was spared by senators as it was voted on in the final days of the Congressional Review Act window, is now being delayed by the agency because of the uncertain fate of the rule as it is being challenged in court by industry organizations and three states and because the American Petroleum Institute CEO, Jack Gerard, asked it to do so. This rule would have reduced some of the most dangerous impacts of fracking for natural gas extraction, including leaks, venting, and flaring, which would have reduced methane pollution that can lead to elevated levels of ground-level ozone and other hazardous air pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide, triggering asthma and even cancer.

Public health progress demands action today, without delay

Whether we’ve waited four, ten, or even forty years for a particular standard, we must remember that every day of delay means:

  • one more day that a pregnant mother trying to cut down on her sugar intake will have to guess whether the sugar in her food is natural or added;
  • one more day that a person of color living near a chemical plant in Texas will have to fear the consequences of a toxic leak or explosion;
  • one more day that a first-time homeowner could be exposed to formaldehyde from household items in amounts high enough to lead to an asthma attack or a nasopharyngeal cancer diagnosis;
  • one more day that a worker in a metal foundry could be exposed to beryllium at levels high enough to one day lead to chronic beryllium disease.

Each and every one of these scenarios represents one day too long. When each of these rules were finalized, the scientific and cost-benefit analyses supported the date of implementation. The only reason for delay now is political. Often, the reaction of industry trade associations to final rules designed to protect our public health makes it seem like government is blindsiding them. But in reality, the process that goes into crafting new rules is meticulously and thoughtfully executed by government, which takes years to gather input from stakeholders, including industry, to inform several iterations of rules that are eventually finalized. However, it seems not to matter if industry has one year or ten years to prepare for a change; the end result is the same. The fact is that science-based policies threaten an industry’s status quo and trade organizations with business interests in mind will work tirelessly to stop or slow any perceived disruptions in business as usual, regardless of what that means for public health.