WASHINGTON — The opportunities to enact legislation impacting the nation's obesity problem will be numerous during the next two years of the newly elected Congress, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association here.
GMA will “continue to advocate for sensible obesity prevention legislation,” Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs at GMA, told SN. “There will be opportunities in the Highway Bill, tax reform, the Farm Bill — a lot of people assume the divided Congress won't produce much legislation, but Congress almost certainly will act on tax, [the Farm Bill] and education. All those things will provide opportunities for more physical activity, and to open more grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods.”
Last year GMA supported some legislation that was introduced specifically to combat obesity, such as the Healthy Choices Act, H.R. 5209, which focused on nutrition education; increasing access to affordable, healthy foods; and providing more opportunities for physical activity. The bill never came out of committee, but similar legislation could come up again, Faber pointed out.
“There will be a number of bills reintroduced,” he explained. “And there will continue to be a debate between those who think we should make the healthy choice the easy choice, or those who think the government should make that choice for you.”
For example, Faber cited the debate over whether the government should exert more influence over purchases made by recipients of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
“There is no evidence that government micromanaging how SNAP benefits are spent has any impact at all on obesity,” he said.
Last year New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take soft drinks off the list of SNAP-eligible items amid growing scrutiny of high rates of obesity among low-income people. It was one of several similar efforts that have failed in recent years.
GMA has been supportive of legislation that promotes food-retail development in underserved areas, known as food deserts, and Faber said the issue could be advanced further this year.
“There will be some modest opportunities in the Farm Bill and in tax legislation to expand access to grocery stores in urban and rural areas where those areas are underserved,” he said. “We supported the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, and I am sure we will be supporting that again in 2011.”
The Obama administration introduced the $400 million HFFI last February, drawing resources from the Treasury Department, the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to spur grocery-store expansion in underserved areas. Some observers have questioned whether it will continue to receive funding given the federal budget deficit.
Other issues that GMA will focus on in the current year include working with consumer groups to make sure the Food and Drug Administration gets the financing it needs to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, the sweeping food-safety legislation that steps up inspections, takes a risk-based approach to the issue and focuses on prevention of outbreaks.
As with the HFFI, funding for the food safety bill — estimated to cost $1.4 billion over the next four years — could face some opposition from fiscal conservatives.
GMA also will continue to press for reform in the Environmental Protection Agency's review of the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 measure regulating the use of certain substances in the manufacture of consumer products. The association, in partnership with other groups, has called for a more science- and risk-based approach to such regulation.
Several states have called on the federal government to take more aggressive action on TSCA, and some states have begun implementing their own regulations — creating a patchwork of varying restrictions that is also opposed by GMA. The association would rather see a single federal system of regulation that facilitates nationwide manufacturing processes.
GMA is also eyeing the consideration of several new bilateral trade agreements, which could open up new markets for its members, Faber explained. South Korea is first among those countries with new trade agreements pending. That agreement could boost exports to the country by $11 billion, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. Ratification of that agreement could be followed by agreements with Colombia and Panama, both negotiated during the President George W. Bush administration but never ratified by Congress.
“All three would essentially eliminate tariffs on many different kinds of food products, and would open up those countries to our goods,” Faber explained. “[The agreements] would also maintain competitiveness with other nations that have ratified bilateral agreements.”
He said he expected the trade agreements would be one of the first issues taken up in 2011.