Nutrition Policy on Capitol Hill: An Uphill Battle

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January 18, 2013 by jsohl

When I got back from the DC trip someone asked me how it changed my thoughts about nutrition policy. My initial response was that the trip reinforced my thoughts about how complicated policy making can be. Our group was fortunate to have heard from so many people involved in nutrition policy: from assistants to Congressmen, to private consultants, to people working for the CDC, Grocery Manufacturers Association, National Restaurants Association, USDA, FDA, and School Nutrition Association, just to name a few. With so many stakeholders in nutrition policy with varying interests and biases, it is amazing that anything gets done at all. Throughout the week it became clear that in order to make progress, each interest group must truly be persistent, patient, and willing to compromise.

We live in such a data-driven world today. Decision makers want solid evidence to support potential changes, and understandably so. Even issues that would be seemingly innocuous, such as front of pack labeling (http://www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/ucm202726.htm), were under scrutiny.Would it be more beneficial to include only the calories and a rating on the label? Or perhaps including components we want to promote, such as fiber, would be more helpful. Maybe nutrients people may hope to limit, such as sodium, should be included. Studies were done examining which options may have the greatest impact on consumers, and the winner is……….it depends on the study you look at. Currently the FDA is reviewing study results and stakeholder comments, and we will have to wait some more before we find out what the new front of package labels will include.

Unfortunately, unbiased evidence is nearly impossible to come by because all researchers have their individual reasons for performing the study. When looking at obesity, one of the hottest public health topics of today, one must consider so many complex factors that contribute to weight gain and chronic disease. For this reason, researchers are unable to prove that a single policy change is able to decrease obesity rates. So where does this leave the stakeholders? – Juggling lots of movements that are attempting to make a dent in obesity rates. It leaves those on the public health side spending lots of time advocating for environmental change that may help to make the healthy choice the easy choice for consumers. Those on the business side spend just as much time in trying to preserve their valid interests in being profitable. Those in the legislature… well, I imagine their heads are spinning a bit in trying to tweak bills and vote in a way that will please more of their constituents than they upset. With so many interest groups to consider, and so much potential scrutiny if a new law or policy flops, it is no wonder that it takes a decade for a bill to become a law and it can feel like it takes just as long to implement a policy. I guess the take-home message would be that if you want to make real change in policy, you have to grow a thick skin, hold on tight, and be willing to compromise along the way.

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