Emanuel: White House Working on New Food Labels

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The Obama administration and the food industry are deep "in the weeds," working to revise front-of-the-product nutrition labeling standards, Zeke Emanuel, a senior adviser to the Office of Management and Budget said today at the Washington Ideas Festival.  Emanuel and Sam Kass, a White House chef and local D.C. heartthrob, updated the status of the First Lady's "Let's Move" initiative to combat childhood obesity, which kicked more than a year ago.

"Imagine a family whizzing down shopping aisle with three kids in a half an hour to get the food for a week. We can distill information information to decide what to buy when they are in that context," Kass said.
Washington Ideas Forum

But the food industry wants to keep as much control as possible on the part of the food product that faces parents and kids. But the government wants to  "standardize" part of it, perhaps to include the level of "calories, salt, sugar, fats," Emanuel said.

Kass was quick to say: "The food industry is working hard in trying to figure this out with us."

In May, the Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to food manufacturers warning them that the agency was taking a closer look at existing front labels to make sure they're accurate. Last year, the FDA objected to the words "Smart Choice" on the box of fruit loops.

Before she got to the White House, the First Lady made clear to Kass, then the family's private chef in Chicago, that she wanted to lead by example.  "She made clear that all the food served in the White House, from staff meals to stater dinners to what we were serving to the family, had to represent the broad issues of what we cared about," Kass said.

Momentum for the initiative has come from fellow chefs, hundreds of whom joined the First Lady at the White House earlier this year. They've been encouraged to take the First Lady's message and adopt individual schools where they live. But many schools, Emanuel noted, don't have kitchens anymore, instead serving meals produced elsewhere. To that end, several companies have agreed to donate pots, pans and burners to 1,000 schools.

The other micro-initiatives that Kass helped the First Lady set up, the White House garden and a farmer's market, have attracted worldwide attention. Kass said that Michelle Obama regularly notes how, when she's traveling across the globe, foreign first ladies ask her about the garden. 

The Atlantic's Corby Kummer moderated the panel.



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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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