Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joins us to talk about the youth movement against gun violence, Russian sanctions, and more. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh shares her thoughts on relief for high water bills and news that D.C. Public Schools is taking over an all girls charter school.
With sweeping reform of the nation’s food safety system underway, the Food and Drug Administration has a lot on its plate. The agency is writing regulations governing everything from calorie count displays to the definition of ‘gluten-free.’ We’ll consider the impact coming changes will have on your diet.
- Lyndsey Layton Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "It's Your Turn." You never really got a chance to tell us what you thought about the operation that ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden. You can talk about that, the presidential candidacy of Newt Gingrich or anything else on your mind.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, what do tobacco, dog food, cosmetics and x-ray machines have in common? They all fall under the regulatory control of the Food and Drug Administration. One of the agencies biggest jobs is making sure the food we eat is both safe and wholesome. With new rules pending as part of the Food Safety and Modernization Act, the FDA, well, has a lot on its plate. Joining us in studio is Lyndsey Layton, reporter with the Washington Post who covers the FDA. Lyndsey, good to see you again.
MS. LYNDSEY LAYTONOh, it's fun to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIOne in six Americans will get sick from food they eat this year. Knowing that, it's kind of surprising that the FDA will only have clear authority to pull contaminated food off shelves for the first time, this July. How will the recall process change then?
LAYTONWell, it is pretty remarkable and I think most people are surprised, as you say...
LAYTON...that -- yeah, because up to now, the FDA, all it's been able to do as it goes to food manufacturers and pleads with them to please recall that tainted lettuce, spinach, you know, poor -- fill in the blank. And sometimes, in some cases, the food manufacturers refused to do it. And they've got to go to court and get an injunction, it's a lengthy process. Meanwhile, the food is out on the supermarket shelves, people are eating it and getting sick. So under the new set of laws that Congress approved last year, the FDA will now have the authority to initiate a recall unilaterally without cooperation from the company.
LAYTONIt doesn't matter what the company thinks, the FDA has the power to do this. And they just issued that first regulation last week. It takes effect in July. And it's the first of about 50 regulations that the agency is furiously writing, crafting to implement the law that Congress passed last year.
NNAMDIWe'll talk some more specifically about some more of those. But we're inviting your calls. Do you trust the food safety measures in place in the U.S.? Why? Or why not, 800-433-8850? Lyndsey, about 15 percent food eaten in the U.S. comes from abroad. Monitoring food produced overseas is getting tougher as global trade increases. How does, yet, another rule get at that issue?
LAYTONWell, as you say, 15 percent of our food comes from abroad and that changes, actually, seasonally in the wintertime. We're importing -- more than half of our fresh produce is coming from abroad. So a lot of food and very little checking, currently the FDA only inspects about one percent of the imported food that's coming into this country. The new law, approved by Congress, last year, requires importers to certify the food meets the same standards as U.S. producers.
LAYTONSo there's -- they're also now working to implement that part of the rule and set up a system of third party inspectors that will make sure that the food coming in, at our ports, meets the same standards as food grown here and processed here.
NNAMDIThese two rules are the tip of the iceberg. Many more regulations. You mentioned about 50 are coming as part of the Food Safety and Modernization Act signed into law this January. What other areas of food safety is the FDA working on as part of that legislation?
LAYTONWell, there's one that's very interesting that I think, for the first time, the federal government is going to be on the farm telling farmers how to grow their crops because we've had a rash of food-borne illnesses associated with fresh produce in this country, spinach, sprouts, cantaloupe, et cetera. And they're finding that they need to create sanitary conditions on the farms. So the FDA has spent the last year, basically, going around, meeting farmers, trying to understand agriculture.
LAYTONYou know, this is an agency that doesn't -- never regulated agriculture in the past. So it's got to get up to speed and figure out how to design a set of standards that farmers can meet that are flexible enough to cover all the varying kind of agriculture we have in this country from smaller organic outfits to large agribusinesses. And so they've been working on this. And that's -- those standards are due out, I think, within a few months and that'll be interesting to see.
NNAMDIWell, sending folks out into the field sounds quite expensive to me. And budget cuts have been, it seems, ubiquitous. How is the agency going to pay for these changes?
LAYTONThat's a really good question. And it's one, I think, that the FDA is very concerned about because, as you say, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill now is to shrink government, not to expand it. And the commissioner at the FDA, Margaret Hamburg, has said she's very concerned that they won't have enough funding to implement all of these laws and to also increase the number of inspections that are required under the new law.
LAYTONSo it's a good question. It's unanswered. We'll have to see.
NNAMDIWe'll have to see how it's paid for?
LAYTONYeah. Well, right now, currently, in the current debate, the FDA's doing okay in the last showdown that the republicans and the democrats had on the Hill over the continuing resolution to fund the current budget. The FDA came out unscathed, relatively unscathed. Because republicans recognize that this is an agency that's been under funded for a long time. The food safety law passed with strong bipartisan support last congress. So it's not, you know, a target, per se.
LAYTONSo we'll have to see how it does next year.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Isabel in Kensington, Md. Isabel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ISABELThank you so much for having me. The question about the FDA getting more involved in organic agriculture, will this law under the pretext of regulating contaminated food allow the FDA to enforce its view on raw milk? I know that was an issue in California. So will this allow the FDA to stop small farmers from selling raw milk on the shelves if the FDA decides that that's unhealthy?
LAYTONWell, the FDA -- it has jurisdiction over interstate commerce. So if you're selling across state lines, that's the purview of the FDA. If you're selling your product, your raw milk inside a state, then the FDA has little standing there. So in most of these cases over the raw milk issue, we're talking about products that are sold in the state and the FDA has no authority to impose its will when you're just selling within your state borders.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Isabel.
NNAMDIThe FDA -- well, instead of -- inspections of cheese making facilities have already been stepped up. Artisanal cheese makers claim scrutiny of their jack cheddar and blue cheeses is unfair. Why is the FDA so worried about cheese and why do the artisanal cheese makers feel it's unfair?
LAYTONYes, there's been a big explosion in the cheese making world over this because the agency has stepped up its inspections of small artisanal cheese makers. These are folks who make cheese on the farm. Their -- or close to it. And the problem, from the FDA's point of view, is that a lot of these cheeses are made with raw milk and they're aged for at least 60 days. That was the -- that’s been the standard. And that was thought to kill off that -- it was thought to be a lengthy enough time to kill off any bacteria that would be harmful to humans who eat the cheese.
LAYTONBut what microbiologists have found, is that 60 days may not actually be a good enough standard and that some bacteria, E. coli, live beyond the 60 days and we've had a number of outbreaks that have been linked to some of these cheeses where people have gotten pretty sick. And so the FDA has applied some new scrutiny to the cheese makers. Cheese makers are trying to work with the agency to develop some self policing and to try to ward off any further enforcement.
LAYTONAnd I think they've reached a détente on that -- on the cheese front.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Lyndsey Layton. She's a reporter with the Washington Post who covers the Food and Drug Administration. We're getting an update on FDA regulations and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. If you're a food producer or importer, do you know what the new regulations will mean for you? You can also go to our website kojoshow.org or send us a tweet at kojoshow, shoot us an email to email@example.com.
NNAMDILyndsey, the FDA has taken some heat lately for failing to come up with a definition for the term gluten-free. Guidelines for use of this term are three years overdue. Do you think the issue will be resolved anytime soon?
LAYTONI think -- most recently, I had a conversation last week with Mike Taylor who's the associate commissioner for food at FDA. And he said that it's now on the agency's radar screen. They are working on it. They think that they're going to finally have this definition crafted. They've been at it for seven years, which seems like a lengthy time to most folks and meanwhile, they're plenty of other countries, Australia, Brazil, parts of the EU who have developed these standards and they're in place.
LAYTONSo it doesn't really seem like a very complicated matter to the -- to an outsider. But the FDA says, now, that they are on it and they're going to deliver those -- that definition pretty soon.
NNAMDIAren't there at least 20 million Americans who can't wait for them to be on it? Who are these 20 million Americans?
LAYTONThat's true, Kojo. About three million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed or are believed to have Celiac Disease, which is this autoimmune disorder. And if you've got this disease and you eat something that contains gluten, which is a protein that's found in barley, wheat, rye, the linings of your intestines don't function properly. And you can get very sick. In fact, you can suffer from malnutrition. It can lead you to -- the greater risk for certain kinds of cancers. There's some serious life threatening results of this.
LAYTONSo those three million people have to -- the only solution is a gluten-free diet. So there are another 17 million who have what we believe is gluten-sensitivity. And those are folks who also need to watch their diets and avoid gluten. And because of this explosion in the number of people who've been told by their doctors to avoid gluten, there's also been an explosion in the gluten-free products in the supermarket. You'll see it now everywhere, gluten-free this, gluten-free bakeries.
LAYTONOprah and Gwyneth Paltrow went on gluten-free diets and raved about it so it's got kind of a faddish element to it. And there's a lot of money to be made. It's going to be about a $2.6 billion market by next year. So there's a problem because folks who need to avoid gluten can't be sure that when they're buying it actually is gluten-free because the feds haven't set a standard. So the food makers don't have to meet any standards.
LAYTONThey can put that label on whatever product they're selling.
NNAMDIHere is Beth in Landover, Md. Beth, your turn.
BETHHi. I was just kind of wondering about the relationship between food safety and the way that most mass manufacturing processes are hidden from, you know, the average food consumer. I've heard some stories recently about large corporations, especially meat processing facilities, trying to make it illegal to have images of these food processing premises and facilities available because most people would be shocked and horrified by what they see.
BETHAnd so I was wondering if the FDA has anything, you know, to address this problem of, you know, a kind of a greater understanding of, you know, what these facilities and...
NNAMDIYou're garbling on us pretty quickly, but I hope Lyndsey Layton got the point.
LAYTONYes, Beth, I think what you're referring to when you're talking about meat processing facilities, those are all regulated by the USDA. So the FDA really has not very much to do with meat and how meat is processed in this country. What you're talking , though, there's been efforts in a couple of states now to make it illegal for anyone on a poultry farm or in a meat packing facility to record the conditions there without the permission of the owner of the facility.
LAYTONAnd this is in reaction to a number of uncover videos that have been made by mostly folks who are with The Humane Society of America or, you know, animal rights activists who have gone uncover, gotten jobs in these places, taken video and then posted it to show the public the conditions of some of these big outfits.
NNAMDIIndeed, Beth, last week we had a conversation with Mark Bittman so-called gag laws that are being proposed and at least two states in the nation. That conversation was on May 3rd. You can go into our archives and listen to it. Thank you for your call. We've got to take a short break.
NNAMDIIt's "Food Wednesday." When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Lyndsey Layton. She's a reporter with The Washington Post who covers the FDA with some updates on FDA regulations. Again, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you trust the food safety measures in place in the U.S.? Why or why not? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a "Food Wednesday" FDA update with Lyndsey Layton. She's a reporter with The Washington Post, who covers the Food and Drug Administration. If you've called 800-433-8850, we will get to your call. We still have a couple of lines open so you can call, 800-433-8850 or shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDILyndsey, Americans spend over 40 percent of our food budgets on snacks and meals eaten outside our homes. The FDA is crafting rules for the display of calorie information on menus in chain restaurants, convenience stores and on vending machines nationwide. When can diners expect to see calorie counts staring back at them from the menu board at McDonald's?
LAYTONThat should -- those should be issued sometime in 2012. So next year, we'll start to see those and, as you say, it'll be when we drive up, you know, drive-thru, any restaurant chain that's got 20 or more locations or food establishment 20 or more locations and also vending machines. So that's going to be an interesting sociological experiment to see whether having the calorie count is going to change consumer behavior when they're making choices.
NNAMDIWill calories posted on menus impact your decisions when eating out? Call us, 800-433-8850. I understand there's one study that indicates that 12 percent of, people ordered food with 12 percent fewer calories when calorie counts were on the menu but when asked how they chose their orders they actually mentioned freshness, quality and portion size. In this study no one mentioned calories.
LAYTONYes, that was an industry study, or funded by the food industry and we'll see if it makes a big difference. There's also, you know, New York City has had calorie labeling now for a couple of years and there's been some studies in New York that show that it has made a difference. 12 percent fewer calories per order, that adds up. At the end of a week, that's, you know, that's a pound or two. So we'll see.
LAYTONThere's one interesting exception to this law...
LAYTONYes, movie theaters. How many calories, Kojo -- don't look. How many calories do you think are in a medium bucket of unbuttered popcorn at your local theater?
NNAMDII always order mine with butter so I would have no idea.
LAYTONIt's 1200 calories typically and that's, you know, if you're a 45-year-old man, that's your caloric intake for the day.
LAYTONThat's unbuttered. Buttered adds a couple hundred more.
NNAMDICan I have a hot dog, please? No, go ahead.
LAYTONNow I'm getting hungry. So the movie theaters lobbied the FDA and made the argument that because people come to the movies to be entertained, not to eat a meal, that they are not food establishments and they should be exempted from this. And so they won their case and the FDA said that movie theaters, bowling alleys, airplanes...
NNAMDIAny other place where less than half floor space is devoted to food sale?
LAYTONRight. You know, in our society it's hard to define what is a food establishment because food is everywhere, right? You go to the gas station and there's a pizzeria in the gas station and it's just all over. So the agency spent a lot of time trying to define food establishment and this is what they came up with.
LAYTONThese are actually draft rules and they're going to be finalized in a couple of months and there is one member of Congress, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, who wants those movie theaters in that law. So she's going to pressure the FDA to try to convince them to include movie theaters.
NNAMDII agree wholeheartedly and movie theaters listen to me because I'm their biggest patron. Here is Gina, in Bethesda, Md. Gina, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
GINAHi, I am a pro-raw milk supporter and I just wanted to raise the issue of the bovine club that we're in called Grass Sat On A Hill. We've arranged with a farmer to bring in raw milk because we believe it's more nutritious and we believe that's raised in sanitary, you know, the animals are raised in sanitary conditions.
GINAAnd the FDA has gotten the Justice Department to sort of go after and shut down our farmer and we're really up in arms about this, you know, with a Facebook page and a rally that's coming up next week. I was wondering if -- you know, what your thoughts are on that? I personally believe that the FDA is sort of meddling where it doesn't belong in this case.
LAYTONWell, I don't know that particular case and I'll have to check it out if it's a local concern that would be very interesting to me. So thanks for the tip. I know that the raw milk aficionados are very passionate about the product, but the regulators are very concerned that raw milk, this is milk that comes straight from the cow obviously, that's not been pasteurized, that it can contain some harmful bacteria that can make people pretty sick.
LAYTONSo there's a tension built in there whether folks should be able to take risks and drink raw milk or whether the government wants to protect public health and thinks it's an unhealthy act. So there's this natural built-in tension going on.
NNAMDIGina, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Colson, who says, "When the guest says third-party inspectors, does she mean contractors? Aren't they part of the problem?"
LAYTONThese are not contractors. Generally -- and, you know, the FDA is writing the rules now so we'll see what they come up with. But generally speaking, when we're talking about a third-party certification, we're talking about companies that, for a fee from the food manufacturer or the food exporter, go in and check the processes, make sure that the food was created in a sanitary condition and meets all the standards, tests the food and then documents that that food meets a certain standard. So these are third parties that are paid by the food makers to verify that the food makers are meeting all the required standards.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Donna, "Is fish included in the inspections? Much of the fish that is sold in big-boxed stores comes from fisheries abroad. I have read that those fisheries do not have the same standards as those in the U.S. I think this should be better publicized."
LAYTONThat's true. The FDA does regulate most fish for some. There's a very long story about catfish but catfish is now under the purview of the USDA. But the FDA has the rest of it and it's true. Some of these fish, especially that are coming from Southeast Asia, there have been a lot of issues with farmed fish that are raised with antibiotics, some of which are not approved for use in the U.S. and these fish come into our market and we have not been very thorough about vetting it. So that's an issue and that would be covered under the new law.
NNAMDIOnto Kathleen, in Sterling, Va. Kathleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHLEENHi, my question is about GMO, genetically modified foods. Genetically modified crops don't have the minerals and vitamin content that regular crops do and many people's bodies are not processing these GMO foods. And doctors are prescribing non-GMO diets for their patients. So how come we are not allowed to know which products on the shelves and in the produce section are GMOs and which ones aren't?
NNAMDIThe FDA said that genetically engineered salmon is safe to eat. They said that last fall it's likely to be the first genetically modified animal to enter the U.S. food supply, correct?
LAYTONThat's true. And lining up behind the salmon, you know, if that gets approved, there's a whole range. There's an in-viro pig that's coming and there's some cattle and there's just a lot of other food waiting in the wings. The bio-tech industry is very excited about the salmon. If they can get it through, then others will follow.
LAYTONThe labeling question is really interesting. The FDA, it's been the position of the FDA and the USDA that genetically modified organisms are equivalent to the regular, the unmodified, and so they do not have to be labeled. And in fact, they have taken the position that if you put a label on the food or you're requiring a label on that food, you're somehow implying there's something wrong with it or that there's a risk involved in it.
LAYTONSo that's been the position of the U.S. government. It's very interesting though, around the country now in a number of state legislatures, I think there are about 12, there have been labeling laws introduced that are pending. And if those states are successful and start requiring labeling of genetically modified organisms, that might put pressure on the federal government to change its position. So we'll see what happens.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kathleen. Speaking of labeling, we'll go to Will, in Millersville, Md. Will, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WILLYes, to add to that lady (unintelligible) a little bit, but not quite. That's exactly right. I mean, when you do not allow labeling, you do not allow choice. We cannot choose whether we want genetically modified or not because we don't know what is and what isn't because there's no labeling.
WILLNot only FDA said they couldn't label, they also can't label foods that are processed or not processed, but fertilized with human sludge from sewer treatment plants. They also won't let you label foods that are, what they call now cold pasteurized. Cold pasteurized is eradiated. They didn't like that name so now they're going to try to use this cold pasteurized instead of eradiation.
WILLWe want to know when food's been eradiated. We want to know when foods have been fertilized with human sludge, when they've used genetically modified organisms or -- there's one other big number, for some reason...
NNAMDIArtificial coloring. Do you want to know when there's artificial coloring?
WILLThat's -- artificial coloring is in our ingredients list. So we can look at that and read that, but it would be nice to have the knowledge and make the choice. When you deny labeling, you are denying choice and it's just like this lady who wanted to use raw milk. So, you know, if you put raw milk and you say warning or whatever else, it's like cigarettes. It's like anything else. We should have the choice to destroy ourselves.
NNAMDIOkay, Will, got it. Got it. Lyndsey Layton, in Martin FDA advisory panel rejected the idea of putting warning labels on foods containing artificial coloring. One panelist said, quoting here, "If we put a label on every chemical and ingredient that has not been adequately studied, you wouldn’t see the package anymore." That doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Have we heard the last of this issue?
LAYTONWell, I think we have heard the last of it on the artificial coloring for now because, you know, that was an advisory panel to the FDA looking at new data on artificial coloring and they felt that it was inconclusive or there wasn't enough there to require a warning label, even though the EEU requires a warning label on artificial coloring in those countries.
LAYTONBut -- so I think that's quieted down for a while. We'll see, when there's new evidence that shows, you know, if there is that shows additional risks, I'm sure that we'll hear about this again. But I think Will makes a really good point, Kojo, about how consumers these days really are interested in how their food is grown and raised and processed.
LAYTONAnd they want to know what's in it and they want to know who the farmer was and they want more information and more transparency. So I think that kind of populous impulse is what's behind what's happening in a lot of these state legislatures that are talking about labeling laws and trying to get more information to consumers.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Will. Here is Mike, in Leasburg (sp?) Va. Mike, you're on the air, your turn.
MIKEHi, Kojo. I'd like to talk a little bit about smaller farms. I know your guest touched a little bit on small organic farms. And it seems like a lot of the regulations, including the new food safety bill, kind of disadvantages small farms and advantages really large ones.
MIKEObviously, everyone's interested in safe food, but is there some way that we can work out that is not prohibitively expensive for small farms to sell, you know, their meats and other products, get them tested and inspected safely, but also cheaply enough that they can compete?
LAYTONWell, that's a really good question. And in fact, there was an amendment to the food safety law that Senator Tester, who himself, he's an organic farmer from Montana. He added that language last year that would exempt small farmers.
LAYTONI think the definition was $500,000 or less a year or people who sell exclusively on the farm or at farmers markets. So the idea was to try to protect some of the small growers from the costs of this legislation, which can be pretty significant.
NNAMDIMike, thank you for your call. We got an email from Aaron, who says, "How does the FDA enforce standards? For example, under the new laws, if a restaurant claims that something on the menu has a certain number of calories, how does the consumer know that this true? Is there regular vetting of these claims by food producers and if the claims are found to be untrue, are standards enforced?"
LAYTONThat's an excellent question. Because the FDA doesn't have enough inspectors to inspect all the food facilities that it has now. It's been understaffed for years and that's well known. So, yes, I'm not sure how the calorie counts are going to be enforced.
LAYTONI mean, what do you do? Do you take home a sample and bring it to your own laboratory and analyze it and then file a complaint if it's different? Do you call the FDA if you suspect that, I mean, I don't know. We'll have to see how this plays out but enforcement is a big problem for that agency. They're already understaffed.
NNAMDIThe FDA was working on guidelines for putting calorie counts on the front of packaged foods. Earlier this year though the food industry rolled out its own plans for doing that. It sounds proactive but public health experts say it's actually a problem. Why?
LAYTONWell, the industry was trying to beat the FDA to the finish line here and instead of waiting for the agency to make some changes the industry preempted them and rolled out their own standards. But their standards allow food manufacturers to put a couple of promotional things on the front of the label.
LAYTONYou know, they can advertise protein or calcium or a couple of nutrients that they consider, you know, are needed in the diet. When, you know, we all get, basically the U.S. diet, we get plenty of protein. That's not, you know, that's not anything that we need to increase and this allows food manufacturers to kind of promote the good things about their products and maybe hide some of the bad things.
LAYTONYou know, you put on a package, on a box of ice cream that it's got calcium but, you know, you don't really promote the fact that it's got a lot of saturated fats or -- so it's a way to sort to disguise some products and make them seem better than they are for you.
NNAMDILyndsey Layton is a reporter with The Washington Post. She covers the Food and Drug Administration. Lyndsey, thank you so much for joining us.
LAYTONAlways fun, Kojo, thank you.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back It's Your Turn. You can start calling now. What do you think of the presidential candidacy of Newt Gingrich? You haven't had a chance to talk with us since about 10 days ago when the operation that killed Osama bin Laden took place. You might want to talk about that. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. It's your turn. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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