As the Republican battle against Michelle Obama’s school lunch standards resumes in Congress later this month, some food giants are quietly backing away from their fight with the first lady.
“Many companies, such as Schwan’s, that once vigorously fought key elements of the initiative to trim sodium, fat and calories from school menus have actually done a bang up business since the requirements took effect by adapting their products for the $10 billion market.
And now that they have won acceptance for retooled recipes — among them, whole-grain rich Pillsbury breakfast cinnamon rolls, reduced-sodium Schwan’s Big Daddy’s pizza and reduced-fat Doritos — some food makers don’t want the rules to change again as Congress works to reauthorize the law that expires Sept. 30.” said politico.com
“I think a large percentage doesn’t want to change at all,” said Gary Vonck, vice president of the education division at KeyImpact Sales & Systems, a food service distribution company. “I think they feel like they’ve gone through all the changes they need to go through to follow the rules.”
Food companies have largely adapted to the regulations, so “it would probably be a mess if the pipeline changed dramatically,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Safe and Healthful Kids Food project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “I think for some manufacturers, it’s been a great opportunity.”
Processed foods tweaked to cut salt, fat and sugar might not have been exactly what the first lady envisioned five years ago when she stood by the president as he signed the new law designed to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk on school menus. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act set the first new nutrition standards in decades and created fury among congressional Republicans who called it a government overreach
“But USDA and other experts contend that millions of American students are eating healthier because of the changes.
With the Congressional reauthorization effort advancing this fall, and the first lady appearing to take a less visible role in the debate, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday urged lawmakers considering reauthorization: “Don’t take a step back.”
The House Education and the Workforce Committee is said to be drafting a bill aiming to give schools more flexibility, although staff have released no details. Senate Agriculture Committee staff are seeking a bipartisan, middle ground on reauthorization and aiming to mark up a bill mid-September.” said politico.com
Food giants sell more
Meanwhile, the food industry tells how it did well by doing good — or in any case, adapting to a highly regulated market.
Domino’s, Schwan’s and General Mills all increased their K-12 food service sales last year even through more than a million students have dropped out of the National School Lunch Program since nutrition changes kicked in.
“When the regulations came out, we were really well-positioned,” said Lesa Tieszen, channel marketing director for food service at General Mills’ headquarters in Minneapolis.
“She points to an array of products that meet the new guidelines, from Trix Yogurt, without artificial colors or flavors, to an Old El Paso bean and cheese gordita that kids can eat with one hand with little mess. It’s even designed so the beans and cheese don’t stick to the plastic packaging.
The company also sells Pillsbury Maple Burst’n Mini Pancakes, which are tailor-made to be easy for a child to hold, with the syrup infused into the pancakes so they don’t leave desks or hands sticky. School officials like them because they come in individual plastic packages featuring the Pillsbury Doughboy that are oven-safe and can be heated up hundreds at a time. And they contain about as much fiber as oatmeal.
While General Mills supported some of the new rules, the company had previously urged USDA to delay implementation of the standards and asked for more flexibility about what kinds of food could be sold in schools.
Domino’s, meanwhile, actually got into the K-12 school food business because of the opportunity it anticipated in the shift in nutrition requirements. The company’s Smart Slice, a whole grain-rich, lower-fat and lower-sodium pizza, was developed just for school cafeterias.
This year, the company expects its pizza, which is made at local Domino’s locations, will be served in 5,000 schools in more than 44 states. That’s up from last year’s 3,000 schools in 29 states.” said politico.com
“We’ve had no issue with the new rules,” said Jimmy Simonte, brand manager for Smart Slice, in an email.
Back in 2011, however, the company urged USDA to reevaluate its future cap on sodium and to give companies more time to avoid “dramatic” cost increases. Simonte said the company is now “fairly comfortable” with the proposed cap.
After imposing strict sodium limits on school meals and snacks in 2014, the Obama administration regulations would toughen the rules in 2017 and then again in 2022.
Sodium standards still an issue
“Although the food industry has taken a back seat in the bitter political fight over reauthorizing the law, many companies continue to be concerned about its sodium standards.
The technical challenge of dialing down sodium even further in the foods that kids love, whether frozen chicken nuggets or bread sticks, is considered a threat to certain processed food producers, and particularly to makers of frozen pizza, which tends to be high sodium.
That was largely the point.
But critics say the science doesn’t support drastically reducing sodium for children — the final targets would be a roughly 50 percent reduction from where they stand today.
The National School Boards Association and the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school food workers and gets about half of its revenue from the industry, backed a rider in the last omnibus spending bill to block future limits until there is more science to justify them. They are backing similar language in the appropriations bills moving through Congress now.” said politico.com
Those groups are also urging lawmakers to roll back requirements for whole grains and fruits and vegetables, citing high costs and increased plate waste.
Meanwhile, food companies are working around the clock to figure out ways to further reduce sodium while keeping taste, food safety and shelf life intact.
At Schwan’s headquarters in Marshall, Minnesota, the company has invested heavily in R&D to figure out how to perfect a whole grain crust with lower-sodium sauce and reduced-fat cheese to satisfy USDA requirements and picky kids. Schwan’s is believed to supply as much as 70 percent of K-12 pizzas.
“How can we remove salt but keep that same balanced flavor profile?” asked Jared Henderson, director of K-12 product development.
“It’s a question his team has been working on for years. Henderson revels in the challenge, employing red pepper, garlic, oregano, thyme and pepper to dial up the flavor for a slice of pizza that now has 40 percent less sodium than four years ago. “I feel like I get to play with flavors in a way like it’s a symphony.”
The company is also working on incorporating lentils and “ancient grains,” such as spelt to their crusts to add fiber and protein.
But there are limits to how much these more wholesome processed foods can scale back salt, sugar and fat and still be palatable to kids used to fast-food.
“Food really isn’t nutritious unless it’s consumed,” said Karen Wilder, senior director of scientific and regulatory affairs. Wilder said there are ways to limit sodium using more artificial additives like potassium chloride, but the additive sometimes makes things taste bitter. “It also doesn’t fit who we are,” she said.
Schwan’s executives told POLITICO they’re concerned that if the sodium regulations go too far that the future of the National School Lunch Program could be in jeopardy if kids drop out.
The company is making that known in the halls of Congress. It has spent $120,000 on lobbying so far this year, listing school nutrition, GMO-labeling and tax extenders as the issues it’s engaged on.
Vonck, a veteran in K-12 food service, said the consensus is that the more onerous sodium limits slated for the future will be changed, in part because “enough people are listening.”
“We can get to the next sodium level,” he said. The question is whether the kids, particularly the ones who pay, will stick with the program, he said.” said politico.com