Josh Sosland
A decision by the baking industry to engage with the Food and Drug Administration over changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel and serving size rules has created unexpected and highly welcome ripple effects across the Washington regulatory landscape. What began as the smallest of coalitions with a narrow regulatory agenda has blossomed into a powerful, broad-based but still informal Washington group constructively and collaboratively engaging with governmental agencies at the highest level.

The effort dates back four years when a partnership was struck between the American Bakers Association and the American Frozen Food Institute. The groups approached officials at the F.D.A. and offered to share industry perspective as the agency considered the first overhaul in a generation to the Nutrition Facts Panel. The F.D.A. welcomed the offer, and the new quickly expanding group, dubbed the Food and Beverage Issues Alliance, began to meet quarterly with the F.D.A. to discuss a variety of issues, including implementation timing, the size of the label as well as specific changes considered.

When the proposals were issued in 2015, the group became the principal voice for industry concerns about the implementation timing of the rules and others related to bioengineered labeling. On July 29, 2018, three days after the compliance deadline for the new F.D.A. Nutrition Facts Panel requirements, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is to establish a new labeling disclosure regulation for bioengineered food products. Food companies would be required to revise labels yet again, a complex, involved and expensive process.

By the time the F.B.I.A. was ready to urge the F.D.A. to harmonize the compliance dates for Nutrition Facts labeling and bioengineered disclosure in September 2016, the partnership had expanded into an impressively diverse coalition of two dozen groups, including makers of sweeteners, dairy foods and snack products.

While pledging they will comply, the alliance requested “an implementation process that does not require multiple label changes and is cognizant of the time, complexity, and cost involved in making such changes.”

A little more than a year later, the F.D.A. proposed a delay until January 2020 as the compliance deadline for the Nutrition Facts Panel. While appreciative of the proposed date change, the alliance continues to urge the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A. to collaborate to harmonize the compliance dates. While this objective has not yet been achieved, on Jan. 30 Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and F.D.A. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb took the promising step of announcing a formal agreement “aimed at making the oversight of food more efficient and effective by bolstering coordination between the two agencies.”

More recently, the F.B.I.A. is focusing on the importance to the food sector and the U.S. economy of retaining the North American Free Trade Agreement. The alliance now has expanded in membership to more than 40, with groups capturing the span of what America consumes, ranging from the Beer Institute and SNAC International to the Calorie Control Council and the Organic Trade Association.

The group took its case to the Hill last week with a Congressional Reception and meetings with key House committees. The F.B.I.A. showcased the food industry’s economic impact — a total of 43 million jobs, with one-fifth of the nation’s economy linked, directly or indirectly, to the food and agriculture sectors, plus $146 billion in exports. A major subtext in the messaging is that this vast sector relies heavily on free trade, and anything that would undermine NAFTA may seriously damage a vital cog in the U.S. economic machine.

The exodus of major consumer packaged foods companies from the Grocery Manufacturers Association has raised concerns about whether the food industry is still able to find common ground regarding important issues affecting their businesses. Against this backdrop, the progress achieved by the F.B.I.A. takes on heightened importance. Robb MacKie and Lee Sanders of the A.B.A. should be proud of their work in conceiving and building the group. F.B.I.A.’s commonsense agenda demonstrates the continuing appetite for and value of such coalitions.