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  4. Remarks by FDA Commissioner Robert Califf at the Reagan Udall Public Meeting on Front of Package Labeling - 11/16/2023
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Speech | Virtual

Event Title
Remarks by FDA Commissioner Robert Califf at the Reagan Udall Public Meeting on Front of Package Labeling
November 16, 2023

Speech by
Robert M. Califf, M.D., MACC

(Remarks as prepared for delivery)

Good morning. Thank you, Susan.  And thanks to the Reagan Udall Foundation for focusing on, organizing, and hosting today’s important public meeting on front-of-package labeling.  This is a key aspect of the FDA’s nutrition work and an important priority.

I’m also delighted to once again welcome Jim Jones, our first Deputy Commissioner for Human Foods.  Jim has hit the ground running in his new position.  I know that like me, he is excited and challenged by the promise of our new unified Human Foods program, which will combine previously distinct parts of the FDA into a new structure.  And, particularly relevant to today’s event, this vision also involves the creation of a Nutrition Center of Excellence, which will elevate and strengthen FDA’s nutrition portfolio. I am confident that these changes will be transformative for the agency, but most importantly, they should make a meaningful difference for public health. 

As most of you are aware, the FDA regulates almost 80% of the U.S. food supply.  One key responsibility of this oversight is the complex task of preventing and responding to foodborne illness outbreaks.  

But another responsibility that forms a critical part of the FDA’s mission – the focus of today’s meeting -- is helping create a healthier food supply and providing American consumers with key nutrition information we can all use to make informed, healthy choices. 

The FDA has broad authority over food labeling, including authority to require that nutrition information be provided to consumers.  Ensuring access to key nutrition information about the foods we eat is an essential aspect of our work that goes to the very core of our mission to protect and promote public health.  Through our labeling and other nutrition policies, we have the tools to make the food supply healthier, no matter where you live, and give people more information about their food choices so they can quickly make healthy choices in their busy lives.  

It's worth noting that our work in this area also supports the all of government and all of society approach the Administration is taking to reduce diet-related diseases – from USDA’s powerful WIC program that has a long history of helping moms, kids, and babies thrive to the research and public health agendas of the NIH and CDC.

The food industry also has responsibility and an opportunity to provide additional information and healthier choices that American consumers are asking for.  That’s an important part of the equation, since government most assuredly can’t do this alone.  We’re increasingly aware of the powerful influence of visual and verbal cues in a pervasive world of advertising and social media, and there is also increasing concern about the constant effort to make less nutritious options more appealing to taste and appearance, including clever intertwining of food and popular culture. 

Using the available tools that have been granted by Congress, we’re taking positive steps to advance nutrition; for instance, we updated the iconic Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods, implemented labeling requirements for restaurant menus, established voluntary sodium targets, and are updating the definition of the “healthy” claim. Our latest work on front-of-package labeling has the potential to be similarly iconic.  Although we can’t use many of the methods of modern advertising, we do have the ability to make basic information available to all consumers, and putting the fundamental information on the front of the pack is a common-sense way to improve the probability that the consumer will have a chance to be informed.

These regulatory developments are important, but I want to step back for a moment to underscore the profound personal impact that nutrition has on human health. 

Each year, more than a million Americans die from diet-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancers. And while we’ve seen enormous progress in terms of controlling or developing treatments for many of these diseases, alarmingly, we’re in the midst of a significant backsliding relating to many diseases and chronic illnesses. 

This reversal is also contributing to a catastrophic decline in our life expectancy. I was just in Singapore, and they are approaching an average life span of 85 years, while we’re at 76 and dropping—almost a full decade difference in how long we can expect to live, and an even greater difference when you factor in how long we are living in good health.

Even more worrisome is that much of this negative trajectory is based on, or driven by, disparities that are a function of race, ethnicity, education, and wealth, as well as where someone lives.  People in rural settings, for example, are seeing a dramatic decline in health and life expectancy compared to those in urban areas.  And people without a college degree have an eight-and-a-half year shorter lifespan in America compared to people with a college degree.  And those are just some of the most prominent disparities.

I know I just cited a variety of statistics about the burden of diet-related diseases – which are important to understand – but we can’t forget that we’re talking about real people’s lives here—these are not just statistics. I’m glad that there is a panel in today’s meeting to hear stories and ground our conversation in why this work is so important. 

Over the last several months I’ve been meeting with many groups, including patients, family members, health care professionals, and many others who have a direct stake in fighting these diseases.  Time and again in these discussions I’ve heard from patients, consumers, and others just how important it is to have clear labeling -- not only on medicines – but on their foods. They want it to be easier to pick out foods that can improve their health, prevent disease and extend their lives. 

A parent, for instance, once explained to me the necessity of having their diabetic teenager easily identify which foods are better for them.  When people walk down the grocery aisle, they may see an overwhelming number of options to choose from. It’s common sense that we should be making it easier for people of all ages, reading capabilities, different levels of numeracy and various languages -- to identify healthier foods.

We’re tackling this challenge through a suite of nutrition initiatives, many of which were highlighted in the White House’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. Front and center is our work on front-of-package nutrition labeling.  Front-of-package labels can help consumers quickly and easily identify foods that can help them build a healthy eating pattern. Countries around the world are seeing success with this approach. 

But we cannot help to solve the problem of diet-related diseases in this country if we do not also look at our policies with an eye toward increasing equity.  Unfortunately, issues of nutrition and health are often exacerbated and complicated by a variety of social disparities – race, ethnicity, wealth, education, and where we live.  Front-of-package labeling is part of FDA’s broader approach to advancing health equity by helping consumers to identify foods that could improve dietary patterns. And research shows that front-of-package labels may be particularly helpful for people who may be less familiar with nutrition information.  

Let me offer one more reason why these changes are especially important for protecting public health today.  As I’ve already mentioned, the information the FDA provides to consumers about nutrition does not get disseminated in a vacuum.  Far too often today, people must sift through rampant misinformation and disinformation about the science and facts provided by the FDA and other reliable scientific institutions, including our sister federal agencies.  These distortions undermine confidence in the work we do on nutrition, as well as every other area in which we provide the public with scientific, public health and medical information.  This misinformation may confuse people and lead them to make uninformed choices that can be dangerous to their health. So, it is imperative that the information we provide about the foods Americans eat be grounded in science and regularly shared.

As I said before, the FDA can’t solve this epidemic of diet-related disease on our own. We need to work collectively to better support the health of Americans. Together, we can ensure that Americans get the information they need to make good and well-informed decisions about their health.  Front-of-the package labeling is an important step in this direction and is at the center of our many ongoing efforts to help promote public health through nutrition labeling, healthy food options and making it easier to develop healthy habits.  I look forward to the comments from today’s session to further inform our work in this important area.

And now it’s my great pleasure to present the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Human Foods.  As I said at the outset of my remarks, Jim Jones has jumped right into his new position.  That’s partly because he came to this agency with many years of leadership experience, a strong track record of forging partnerships among diverse segments of stakeholders and achieving dynamic results to improve public health, and engagement on issues involving food safety. Of course, Jim also served on the Reagan-Udall Foundation’s Independent Expert Panel that last year evaluated our human foods program, so he has an intimate knowledge of the kinds of changes needed in that program.  Significantly, throughout his career his decisions have been grounded in sound science, public policy, and law, which is central to our work here at the FDA.  The FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Human Foods … Jim Jones.

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