During his confirmation hearing with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee April 5, Gottlieb told Sen. Pat Roberts that he would be “delighted” to work on the senator’s request to consider postponing the deadline for the new Nutrition Facts Panel.
The Republican senator from Kansas suggested that the current timeline of only two years for implementing changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel that former First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled last May is too soon, especially considering FDA has not yet finalized related guidance on dietary fibers and added sugar.
He also voiced concern that premature implementation of the label changes could result in “hundreds of millions of dollars … lost due to lack of coordination” between FDA’s already proposed changes and the US Department of Agriculture’s pending GMO labeling rule, which would require disclosure of ingredients from genetically modified crops.
With these factors in mind, Roberts asked Gottlieb if he was confirmed if he would “please work to ensure proper guidance is available and consider postponing the deadline for the Nutrition Facts Panel to help reduce regulatory burdens?”
Noting that “this is something that I do care about and I look forward to working on if I am confirmed,” Gottlieb said he is “philosophically in favor of trying to make sure we do these things efficiently, not only because it imposes undue costs on manufacturers to constantly be updating their labels, but we also have to keep in mind it creates confusion for consumers if the labels are constantly changing.”
Therefore, he said, he agrees that “you want to try to consolidate the label changes when you are making [them] as a matter of public health so that the information is conveyed accurately and efficiently to the consumers.”
Delay aligns with industry request
This likely comes as good news to many industry stakeholders who recently asked US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Thomas Price to delay the compliance deadline for the label changes until May 2021.
In the letter, which was signed by 17 major food and beverage industry trade associations, stakeholders echoed Roberts concern about potentially having to change labels twice considering USDA is mandated to finish the biotechnology disclosure rule on July 29, 2018 – just three days after the Nutrition Facts Label changes would go into effect.
They also argued that regardless of GMO labeling, two years is not enough time for the majority of food and beverage manufacturers to make the changes required in the new Nutrition Facts Label rule.
“FDA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis found that the cost associated with a two-year compliance deadline could be as high as $4.6 billion and that could be reduced by nearly $2 billion with a calculated cost of a four-year compliance deadline as high as $2.8 billion,” according to the March 14 letter.
“Unfortunately,” it adds, “FDA, under the previous Administration, chose the option that is 39% more expensive.”
Consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, however, is not buying the arguments for delay.
In an April 5 statement reacting to Gottlieb’s confirmation hearing, CSPI argued the cost to companies to make the change is minor compared to the potential benefits for consumers nearing almost $78 billion over 20 years according to FDA estimates.
“The food industry is seeking to delay giving consumers critical nutrition information for as long as possible,” said CSPI President Michael Jacobson, who characterized the move as “mind-boggling” considering consumers want increased transparency and consumer information.
In addition to the impact of the Nutrition Facts Label changes, the senate committee grilled Gottlieb on his financial entanglements with the drug industry and his outspoken political opinions related to many health changes before FDA in recent years.
Committee members will have at least two weeks to consider whether or not to confirm Gottlieb as the timing of the hearing was just days before Congress’ spring recess.