Food & Beverage

FDA efforts to redefine 'healthy' could hit a roadblock under Trump

A shopper reading a food label in a market.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday announced it is extending the feedback period for comments about use of the word "healthy" on food packaging.

The move gives the food industry and consumer groups more time to weigh in on whether the government should redefine the meaning of "healthy" on food labels.

But it also gives the incoming Trump administration more time to review the issue, and could ultimately lead to reforms in the way the government comes up with food and labeling guidelines.

Use of the term "healthy" to make certain nutrient claims has become controversial over the years, prompting the FDA to issue warnings to certain manufacturers.

Back in September, the FDA indicated it wanted to receive comments from the public by Jan. 26; it has now has extended that date to April 26.

"They are collecting endless comments," said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor specializing in nutrition, food studies and public health. "What this does is move all of this to the new administration, and who knows what they will do about these things."

The delay in the comment period comes as President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to reduce business regulations. In September, Trump made a speech lashing out at the cost of regulations; one area his campaign has targeted is the FDA.

"Mr. Trump is on record saying that the FDA is 'food police' and he doesn't like that," said NYU's Nestle. "Everything that the FDA is doing is up for grabs."

The FDA is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump's choice for HHS secretary is Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a six-term GOP lawmaker and a physician. In 2009, Price voted against a bill that would have expanded the FDA's authority to regulate food products.

In a statement Friday, the FDA told CNBC the agency "extended the comment period on the use of the term 'healthy' in the labeling of food products to April 26, 2017, in response to requests for additional time to submit comments. The FDA also intends to hold a public meeting to facilitate further dialogue on this topic."

Earlier this year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association — a trade group representing the large food and beverage brands as well as major grocers — asked the FDA to review the nutrition content claims and health claims regulations.

The FDA's current "guidance" to industry manufacturers is that foods can make the "healthy" claim if they "have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats" or "contain at least 10 percent" of daily recommended potassium or vitamin D.

In the past, the FDA has issued warnings when it felt these guidelines were not being followed. One such company that received a "warning letter" in March 2015 was Kind, a New York-based snack company known for its fruit and nut bars.

Kind fought the agency's claims that it had wrongly made nutrient content claims. The FDA ended up reversing its position, and Kind issued a press release in May touting how it can once gain use "healthy" on its labels. Kind didn't return requests for comment at deadline.

While the FDA considers how to redefine the term "healthy," "food manufacturers can continue to use the term...on foods that meet the current regulatory definition," the agency's website states.

Jim O'Neill considered for FDA commissioner
Jim O'Neill considered for FDA commissioner