Food vs drugs
What I talk about when I talk about the FDA, what our skeletons say about our diet and the under appreciated kohlrabi.
The FDA isn’t an exciting food topic, but it seems we’re here again. In response to the highly publicized infant formula recall, the agency is finally getting heat from major news publications. However, few are talking about how the bare bones regulatory agency will keep up with New Foods, which are quickly making their way into our supermarkets. Is the current FDA robust enough to watch over the massive shift in how our foods are being produced?
Cultured meat, which industry folks like to suggest will be approved in the US this year, is one example of a very complex New Food that has billions invested in it (too big to fail?). The USDA, which will regulate cultured meat alongside the FDA, even has a few mil invested. To add to my trepidation, it appears there’s one main guy at the FDA juggling the 100+ startups who want to produce cultured meat for the American public. One.
Did you know that every cell-based company will need its own FDA/USDA approval? Each startup will be manufacturing cells differently but once one is approved, will each subsequent startup get the rubber stamp that much easier? How will this be communicated at our supermarkets? Will we read “cultured chicken cells” as a single line item on the nutrition facts panel with nothing more?
“The nation is in a nutrition crisis. Americans are living shorter, less-healthy lives.” This is because of the food on our shelves. It was nice to read this op-ed co-written by Jerold Mande, who I met at a CIA conference in Napa in 2017. Mande was instrumental in the nutrition facts panel on the back of every packaged food you eat. We talked at length about the work he did to make it a useful tool for consumers. (Along with the ways he felt it failed.)
The op-ed compares food-related illness from a century ago to what’s happening today. They write: “More people die every day from diet-related chronic illnesses than in a year from foodborne illness” caused by contaminants the FDA and USDA already regulates. The food industry is a massive contributor to disease. Technology and New Foods don’t modify this statement.
Disease today isn’t from toxic ingredients, but how food is crafted from “highly processed ingredients that promote metabolic changes leading to chronic disease.” How are we letting this happen? Big Food has one goal: Profits. They sell cheap, junk food to keep their boards happy, their stockholders wealthy, and the system humming along. There are no incentives or regulations requiring them to consider our health or, dare I say, sell us the foods we need to thrive.
Only 12% of Americans over age 20 are considered metabolically healthy.
Covid deaths are strongly correlated to whether or not we walk around with underlying conditions. If the FDA were doing its job (with food), the “Covid death toll might have been reduced by as much as one third.”
Only 7 percent of the FDA’s annual budget goes to food. This equaled the salary of 67 people supporting nutrition work at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). The budget for tobacco is 30 times larger.
In 2021, the FDA received $6.1 billion in funding.
Another wonderful explainer about the FDA’s failings comes from Politico writer Helena Bottemiller Evich. Deadly outbreaks keep happening, she writes, and the agency, which has more funding from congress these days, “is slow to respond.” With all the attention on vaccines, which the FDA also oversees, it comes as no surprise that food is lagging, but at whose cost?
“The division—which is dwarfed by the medical products side of the agency—suffers from a deep-seated culture of avoiding hard decisions and a near-paralyzing fear of picking serious fights with the food industry.”
Some of the current problems the FDA is not managing well:
Dangerous pathogens found in the water used in produce farming
Heavy metal contamination in baby foods
PFAS from plastic gloves and packaging, which I wrote about here
Reducing high levels of sodium in food including clear reformulation rules for manufacturers
Scott Gottleib, former FDA commissioner, described CFSAN as lacking the institutional bandwidth to handle the increasing complexity of the food system. Finally! Someone is talking about our future. Yet another commisioner, Michael Taylor, wrote in a subsequent opinion piece: “POLITICO paints a damning but fair picture of an agency that is failing to deliver timely and effective action on food safety and nutrition problems affecting every American every day.” Taylor suggests the long-term solution to fixing the FDA is to break it up and create a separate agency dedicated solely to oversight of food.
But back to that cultured meat conundrum. The one guy who is talking to all the startups it seems is Frank Yiannas, who joined FDA from Walmart in 2018. Yiannas, per POLITICO, “is seen by agency watchers as having a much more private-sector-like speed and ethos: The agency needs to move ahead.” Oh, so now we can go quick?
I feel so much better knowing that one guy out of the 67 people working on food is ready to move fast and break things when it comes to introducing novel, entirely new and untested food into the marketplace.
Recent analysis into Anglo-Saxon skeletons from the 5th to 11th centuries show that they mostly ate cereals (grains) and veggies, but when they feasted (infrequently) it translated to 4,140 calories a person in a single night. Woof.
An ode to kohlrabi because the goofy looking vegetable needs more love. Don’t miss the recipes at to the end.
Where you can find me:
I wrote about how our eating has evolved since Covid began in Sierra Magazine.
May 5th, I’m appearing at Food Edge Summit in Boston. I’ll be talking virtually with Luda Kopeikina of DSM Venturing about investing in a healthy food system.
May 10th, I’ll be keynote at the Northern California Institute of Food Technologists (NCIFT) meeting. After the symposium there’s an expo to see new food-tech. (No food, only tech.) I’ll be there selling books. Come say hi!
May 12th, I’m moderating a panel on fermentation at Reducetarian conference in San Francisco. There’s a reduced price ticket for students.
Podcast listen: I talked with Matt Newberg on his Hngry podcast. Matt writes a weekly newsletter focused on the tech side of hospitality, but he’s a food lover, like me, and we had a great conversation.
Thanks for reading Technically Food! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.