Food Safety

USDA urged to reverse Bush-era gag rule preventing criticism of soda

July 6, 2009
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Too much sugar

Bush administration blocked states from using federal funds to discourage soda consumption

Bush-era rules at USDA prohibit states from using federal nutrition education funds for discouraging soda consumption, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is urging Secretary Tom Vilsack to reverse them. The Bush Administration’s policy was adopted shortly after the soft drink industry complained to state officials running campaigns that urged consumers to cut back on soft drinks, according to CSPI, and is out of sync with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“Soft drinks are the only food or beverage directly linked to obesity,” said CSPI Legal Affairs Director Bruce Silverglade. “Yet under the Bush Administration, USDA gagged state health officials and blocked important nutrition education efforts. We hope the Obama Administration will quickly reverse course and instead actively support state campaigns aimed at reducing soda consumption and obesity”

According to CSPI, the policy has its roots in a 2003 USDA memorandum prohibiting the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds for disparaging or criticizing any food, issued after the state of Maine ran an ad campaign encouraging people to cut back on soda. In March 2009, the USDA restated the gag rule in a guidance document for state health officials.

In 2008, USDA told California officials the state could not use federal funds to run a “Soda-Free Summer” campaign. To obtain funding, California had to change the campaign motto to the milder “Rethink your Drink.” Just last month USDA’s western regional office objected to the state’s “Be Sugar Savvy & Soda Free Summer Campaign.” According to CSPI, that campaign is not funded with federal funds, but regional USDA officials believed it was “disparaging” to soft drinks and objected because they feared it might appear to be funded by the federal government. USDA blocked similar campaigns conducted by the state of Wyoming.

According to CSPI, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, advises people to “choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners.” USDA’s Food Guide recommends that people who consume a reasonable amount of fat and calories should consume no more than 8 teaspoons of added sugars a day-which is less than the amount of sugar found in a typical 12–oz. can of soda.

“This is just a matter of permitting states to run nutrition education programs that are consistent with the federal government’s own dietary advice, so this should really be a no-brainer,” stated Ilene Ringel Heller, CSPI senior attorney.

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