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Conversations with the FDA Commmissioner: Part One of Two

It's been a busy time at the Food and Drug Administration. The agency is at the center of the government's efforts on obesity and just unveiled an important report from its Obesity Working Group. At the same time, the FDA is hard at work on a host of other important consumer initiatives. FoodFit founder and CEO Ellen Haas sat down with FDA Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford recently to talk about some of the hot issues, including obesity, sodium and low-carb standards.

Dr. Crawford was one of FoodFit's original advisory board members and remains a fan. "FoodFit provides the most accessible, useable messages about food and health on the Internet," he says. "It integrates important information in the most coherent way."

FoodFit   This seems like such an active period for consumer initiatives within the FDA. Do you agree?
LESTER CRAWFORD:   Yes. The public's interest in these issues is at an all-time high. Legislative developments have been at an all-time high. In part, this is due to a growth in congressional interest because of concerns about bio-terrorism. But of course the incredible interest in obesity is also responsible. The public has accepted that the FDA has a critical role to play. Now it is up to us to get out a unifying message about obesity, and to move that message forward in a way that it can be understood both by health professionals and by consumers.

FoodFit   It looks like one of your tactics to fight obesity is to change the food label. What do you have in mind?
LESTER CRAWFORD:   Yes, we are definitely focusing on the label, and we are focusing on calories. We will soon propose a new labeling initiative that puts primary emphasis on calories—a larger type size for calories, daily value for calories, and total calories per serving size.

We want to remind people in a forceful way that calories count. We got away from that in 1991-93 when we focused on low fat on the label. We did a good job on that, but we didn't emphasize calories enough. What I like about our proposal is that we are clearly showing consumers the importance of calories.

FoodFit   What about new recommendations that Americans dramatically reduce their sodium intake—would the best strategy to get those levels down be for the FDA Commissioner to use his bully pulpit to jawbone food makers with products high in sodium?
LESTER CRAWFORD:   I like that idea very much. It could also be done by education.

I think that the discussion of sodium in the diet has been overtaken by the vicissitudes and vagaries of the science. The FDA has actually been ambivalent on salt for the past ten years. We moved into the "statin era" where we became more focused on controlling high blood pressure and cholesterol levels with drugs. The FDA needs to look at sodium again, probably through a briefing or white paper for starters, then asking for public comments. I am extremely sympathetic that you don't want regulations that would eliminate the most healthy products with comparatively lower sodium levels because the regulations are too restrictive.


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