Hamburg to stick to ‘nutrition science and health’ on dietary guidelines, advise Burwell before she leaves

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told a Senate panel last week that she will stick to “nutrition science and health” in her recommendations on the dietary guidelines to Health and Human Service Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., asked Hamburg at a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing today for her reaction to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recommendation that the government advise Americans to take the environment into account when making food choices.

“Our role is advisory to the secretary,” Hamburg said. “The report was done by an outside group of scientists. What we comment on will be [based] on nutrition science and health.”

Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have the final responsibility for writing a new set of dietary guidelines. FDA is a division of HHS, and Hamburg has announced she is leaving the agency as of March 31.

Asked by The Hagstrom Report after the hearing whether she will have time to make recommendations to Burwell before she leaves her post, Hamburg said, “I see no reason why not. We are still in the midst of looking at the report.”

But she added she will leave behind a very competent nutrition staff, including Susan Mayne, who recently came from Yale University to be director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition.

(Asked about her future plans, Hamburg said she made her decision to leave FDA “independent of future opportunities.” Her immediate plans, Hamburg said, are to “rest, relax and regroup.”)

Agriculture leaders have criticized the committee’s inclusion of environmental issues in the report, and a coalition of 29 senators wrote to Vilsack and Burwell that the recommendations on misguided, particularly the one that Americans eat less red meat.

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., noted that “Kansas originated Pizza Huts,” and said there is concern that pizza companies will be expected to include caloric counts on every box of pizza delivered under the menu labeling requirements put in place under the Affordable Care Act.

Hamburg said she was unaware of any proposal like that, but acknowledged that the menu labeling requirements for “restaurant-like” establishments are the hardest to figure out.

FDA published a “plain language” statement on the rule for small business today, Hamburg said, but added that the agency is also planning to publish “a framework on areas that are more confusing” so that the food purveyors can comply with the rule by the December deadline.

Moran said he believes that “getting us to certainty by December seems pretty far-fetched.”

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jeff Merkely, D-Ore., said that the onion industry in his state is concerned about a requirement under the new Food Safety Modernization Act that growers would have to test their irrigation water once a week.

Merkley said FDA’s original proposal was that the water should “meet recreational standards,” which would mean the water would be swimmable, but that FDA has dropped that standard as long as the onions have not been irrigated within seven days of harvest.

The testing requirement remains, however, and Merkely said he does not believe the testing is necessary.

“There has not been is a single case of E. coli contamination from an onion bulb,” Merkley said, adding that onions are dried and then peeled. The situation with green onions from Mexico is different, he added.

FSMA implementation is a “dynamic process,” Hamburg noted, adding that FDA “won’t leave food safety forever” after FSMA is implemented.

Reacting to a budget request for more money, Moran noted that Hamburg has said that FSMA will be “transformational,” and asked her if that also means cutting some government spending.

Hamburg replied that she believes FSMA “will be transformational in saving money and saving lives.”

FMSA’s goal of prevention rather than dealing with food safety problems after they occur will help industry, she said. An outbreak of food-borne illness from spinach a few years hurt the entire spinach industry, not just the company that provided the tainted spinach, and the problem went on for several years. Prevention, she added, will also help U.S. exports.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., held up a bottle of Vermont maple syrup and another package labeled “syrup” that contained brown sugar and caramel coloring and asked whether FDA is taking action against such mislabeling.

“Unless there is strong action,” Leahy said, the mislabeling will hurt “part of the culture of the state and an important industry.”

Hamburg noted that FDA had won a legal case in 2012 in which someone used cane syrup and maple flavoring to make a product that was labeled Vermont maple syrup.

FDA hoped that case sent a message, Hamburg said, but her agency has “such a broad range of activities” that it is hard to pursue every mislabeling case under its current budget.

–Hagstrom Report