The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to prioritize food and nutrition initiatives in their mission to advance public health.
What is the FDA?
The FDA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA is responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. The FDA also has responsibility for regulating the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of tobacco products.
Through actions rooted in science and research, the FDA aims to advance public health by supporting product innovation, developing, and implementing policy, and increasing public education.
What is the FDA’s role in the food system?
The FDA regulates the safety and labeling of nearly 80 percent of all food available to U.S. consumers. This includes everything consumed in the country aside from meat from livestock, poultry, certain foods containing meat and poultry, some egg products, and catfish, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“We help ensure consumers have access to accurate and useful information on food labeling,” Laura Carroll, Senior Advisor to the Chief of Staff in the Office of the Commissioner at the FDA, tells Food Tank. “We also encourage the production of healthier foods, for example, by including targets to reduce sodium in foods and providing greater flexibility to industry around the use of salt in standardized foods.”
Carroll tracks the regulation of food back to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This act prohibited the sale of misbranded or adulterated food and drugs in interstate commerce and established a foundation for the country’s first consumer protection agency, the FDA.
The act was the first of more than 200 laws that constitute one of the world’s most comprehensive and effective networks of public health and consumer protections. In 1938, the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) replaced the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Since 1906, there have been numerous amendments and other laws that have expanded and strengthened the FDA’s authorities in the food and nutrition space. One of these laws, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, amended the FD&C Act to give the FDA the authority to require standardized nutrition information to appear on the majority of foods (for example, the iconic Nutrition Facts label), as well as authority to issue regulations authorizing health or nutrient content claims.
The Affordable Care Act in 2010 further amended the FD&C Act to give the FDA authority to require nutrition labeling on menus at certain chain restaurants and other establishments, and calorie labeling for certain vending machines. And the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 upturned our thinking around food safety, transforming the nation’s food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it.
What kind of food and nutrition research is the FDA currently doing?
The FDA invests resources in measurement and analysis, experimental studies, consumer research, scientific methods development, reference database development, bioinformatics, risk analysis, and other science based activities to help inform regulatory, policy, educational, and other risk management decisions aimed at promoting and protecting public health.
“Our policies are always grounded in science and research,” Carroll tells Food Tank. “Much of the nutrition research the FDA conducts focuses on our policy and education efforts.”
As an example, Carroll said the FDA’s research was used to develop education materials to help consumers understand their calorie needs and empower them to use the calorie information on the Nutrition Facts label and certain menus to identify healthier choices.
The FDA recently conducted their Annual Food Safety and Nutrition Survey Report, a consumer survey designed to assess consumer awareness, knowledge, understanding and self-reported behaviors relating to a variety of food safety and nutrition topics.
For nutrition, Carroll shared that the report found 87 percent of consumers are familiar with the Nutrition Facts label and 80 percent are familiar with food package claims, such as No Artificial Sugar or Whole Grain. She also reported that most consumers, around 70 percent, have seen menu labeling at restaurants.
How is the FDA working to improve nutrition security?
The FDA has a long list of accomplishments in their mission to improve nutrition security. Among the most notable is their prioritization of sodium reduction in the food supply, including voluntary sodium reduction targets for industry.
Carroll also reports that the FDA has made significant progress on trans-fat. “After being added to the Nutrition Facts label in 2006, it led to an 80 percent drop in intake of artificial trans-fat through consumer choice and industry reformulation.” Combined with additional FDA actions, artificial trans-fat has been removed from the food supply.
Carroll also notes the FDA’s accomplishments in providing nutrition information to consumers – including updates to the Nutrition Facts label, such as listing added sugars.
Recently, as part of FDA’s effort to unify its Human Foods Program, the FDA also proposed the creation of a Center for Excellence in Nutrition that will empower the agency’s ongoing nutrition efforts to help American consumers make more informed food choices.
“The Center will provide a unique opportunity to elevate and strengthen our nutrition initiatives to reduce diet-related disease and improve health equity,” Carroll tells Food Tank. “The Center will facilitate a coordinated strategic vision and implementation of that vision to expand our nutrition portfolio.”
At the Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health last September, the White House released a National Strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030. As part of that Strategy, the FDA is conducting research to develop a front-of-pack labeling system, making nutrition information easily available on online grocery platforms, and much more.
“We are working, and we continue to work hard every day,” Carroll says. “There’s a way to go on some of our current efforts, but some critically important foundational work has already been accomplished. We’ll continue to work with our fellow federal agencies, engage stakeholders to hear their ideas and feedback, and, of course, continue to work with industry so that Americans have access to nutrition information and healthier, more nutritious food products to help improve all Americans’ health.”
Articles like the one you just read are made possible through the generosity of Food Tank members. Can we please count on you to be part of our growing movement? Become a member today by clicking here.
Photo Courtesy of Scott Warman