WASHINGTON — The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the benefits of flexibility in school lunch programs and the urgent need to reduce food waste are among areas of emphasis at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
In an informal presentation before representatives of the American Bakers Association and the American Frozen Food Institute, Mr. Perdue also expressed support for consolidating food safety responsibilities under a single federal agency. The presentation took place Sept. 12 at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill where the A.B.A. was conducting its fall policy conference.
The U.S.D.A. under the Trump administration takes the dietary guidelines very seriously, with a commitment to science-based guidance, Mr. Perdue said. He urged the food industry to actively seek representation on the guidelines scientific advisory committee, warning the industry representatives that there are plenty of interests allied against the processed foods sector.
He noted that the guidelines alternate between the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S.D.A.
“I do want to reiterate that it is the ultimate responsibility of the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the H.H.S. to announce those dietary guidelines,” he said. “We utilize the wisdom of a broad cross-section of people, and I trust that you all in your companies and your industries are looking at who you would like to represent your views on the dietary guidelines committee. That’s very, very important. I just want to be honest with you. You know that there are people in the United States now that don’t like what you do. I can’t understand that, but they don’t like what you do and the way you do it in many ways, saying, ‘I don’t like the things that you serve your customers.’ Your customers are liking it. There are a lot of people that don’t want your customers to have that choice, so it’s incumbent on you to be engaged in that regard and to speak up and have people who can represent your views in a very articulate fashion in a very scientific-based fashion regarding food and dietary guidelines and what’s healthy and what’s not.
“So I hope you will take that to heart and nominate people that you think should be qualified to serve in that capacity. Oftentimes I find we get science blur and ideology promoted. Our goal for dietary guidelines is to have the best, the most accurate, the most scientific facts of what we should consume and what we should feed children going forward in the future. Dietary guidelines determine a lot of what you all do. We mention school lunches. It determines a lot of what we can recommend to our nutritionists and our school lunch professionals and the school meal professionals, what they should serve.”
Urges industry involvement
Pressing the importance of industry involvement, Mr. Perdue shared a humorous anecdote.
“Shame on you if you don’t engage in that area because someone told me one time ‘You’re an example of what happens when people don’t vote,’” he said. “So you have to vote. It was not necessarily a friend. But you gotta vote with your opinion and vote for your facts and your data and the science there. We’re all in this together, but the food supply chain is very, very complex.”
Under Mr. Perdue, the U.S.D.A. has sought to give schools flexibility when it comes to meeting nutrition guidelines for federally subsidized school lunches. He spoke sympathetically about the job of school county nutritionists as “tough.”
“(They are) trying to determine how to feed all those kids on the budget they’re given even with the great contribution from the U.S. taxpayer, to feed them over those kinds of budgets for all the parameters they’ve got,” he said. “And you gotta get this much in, this much out and all of those kind of things. It’s a tough job today. I grew up just loving the lunchroom ladies. They made me happy every day. Now there is just so much prescription in their job. With those constraints they’ve been in a real quandary, and so we’re really trying to give them the flexibility under the guise of good healthy wholesome meals to create what I believe they’re capable of doing, using that profession which is a lot of science but a lot of art.”
Concern over food waste
Finding ways to reduce food waste is a major priority of the U.S.D.A. and should be for the entire food industry, Mr. Perdue said.
The issue came to light for Mr. Perdue when he looked into issues associated with nutrition requirements and school lunch programs. The need for flexibility in these requirements stems, in part, from the importance of reducing food waste in general. Among criticisms of the nutrition benchmarks is that they lead children to throw more of their food away.
“We should be ashamed really, as an affluent nation, over the degree of waste that we have,” he said. “We talk to our world citizens who don’t have food security and know the kind of waste that we have. We’re making a huge effort in the U.S.D.A. working with some of your companies and others to figure out how we diminish. I don’t know if we can eliminate food waste. That’s post-harvest waste in the field, getting really a logistics system that’s almost got an overstock-type of thing where it’s still safe and healthy food. How we can logistically re-position that food so it will be utilized. How we can grow our food banks in a way they can use these. How can some of your companies participate in a way that as products are going out of date, to get those in a timely way to freezers where we can preserve the quality and the health and safety of that, so they can be utilized for people who don’t really have all they need to eat. Those are important issues that we need to work on together.”
Consolidation of safety oversight
Mr. Perdue said he embraces a proposal by J. Michael (Mick) Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management of Budget, to consolidate the food safety function of the federal government into a single organization, in contrast to the current split between the U.S.D.A. and the Food and Drug Administration. He recounted the complications food manufacturers face because of the current arrangement.
"If it's a chicken, that's U.S.D.A.," he said. "And if it lays an egg, that's F.D.A. If the eggs crack and produce an omelet, that's U.S.D.A. And you go on from there.
“Cheese pizza, that’s F.D.A. But pepperoni on it, that’s U.S.D.A., and processing companies are straddling many of those.
“A single food safety agency is a great idea. We’re doing our best to incorporate in the current environment at the F.D.A. over new technologies such as cell-cultured protein about the jurisdiction, and the authorities and the regulation.”
He said the agencies are looking at what each does best.
“So it’s not a matter of trying to be possessive or one up, it’s a matter of getting a common-sense compliance mechanism for U.S. processors, food producers, as well as consumers knowing who to go to,” he said.