The US House of Representatives dealt a blow to childhood obesity warriors on Thursday by passing a bill that abandons proposals that threatened to end the reign of pizza and French fries on federally funded school lunch menus.
The scuttled changes, which would have stripped pizza's status as a vegetable and limited how often French fries could be served, stemmed from a 2010 child nutrition law calling on schools to improve the nutritional quality of lunches served to almost 32 million US school children.
The action is a win for the makers of frozen French fries and pizza and comes just weeks after the deep-pocketed food, beverage and restaurant industries successfully weakened government proposals for voluntary food marketing guidelines to children.
"It's an important victory," said Corey Henry, spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI). That trade association lobbied Congress on behalf of frozen pizza sellers like ConAgra Foods Inc and Schwan Food Co and French fry makers McCain Foods Ltd and J.R. Simplot Co, the latter best known as a supplier to fast-food company McDonald's Corp.
"Our concern is that the standards would force companies in many respects to change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students," Henry said.
Other AFFI members include H.J. Heinz Co, General Mills Inc and Kraft Foods Inc.
The school lunch provisions were a small part of a mammoth bill that provides money for all parts of the federal government. The House sent the bill to the Senate for final Congressional approval.
"They started out with French fries and now they have moved on to pizza," said Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat, who lamented the government's subsidy of unhealthy diets through school meals. "Pizza alone (without side dishes) ... common sense, it's not a vegetable."
Calls to Minnesota-based Schwan and its external public relations firm and ConAgra were not returned.
Mark Dunn, AFFI's chairman and J.R. Simplot's main lobbyist, referred requests for comment to a company spokesman, who declined to respond.
Pizza as a veggie
Polis mentioned French fries in reference to a provision in the bill that would have blocked the government from limiting servings of white potatoes to one cup per week in meals served through the roughly $18 billion US school meals program overseen by the US Department of Agriculture.
In addition to potatoes, USDA also proposed limits on starchy vegetables including corn, green peas and lima beans, while requiring lunches to serve a wider variety of fruit and vegetables.
Another provision bars the USDA from changing the way it credits tomato paste, used in pizza. The change would have required pizza to have at least a half-cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. Current rules, which likely will remain in place, require just two tablespoons of tomato paste.
According to a USDA report from November 2007, pizza and French fries were among the most commonly consumed lunch foods by participants in the national school lunch program.
Sam Farr of California, the Democratic leader on the appropriations subcommittee in charge of the USDA, said the interference with USDA rule-writing was "wrong" and "shouldn't be done". Still, Farr supported passage of the overall bill.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday that U.S. school children would still see more fruit and vegetables, more grains, more low-fat milk and less salt and fat in meals despite the language in the spending bill.
"First of all, we can assure parents of school-age children (that) USDA will do everything it can" to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, as required by the 2010 child nutrition law.
Vilsack was speaking via teleconference from Hanoi during a US trade trip.
Healthier school lunches are a cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to end childhood obesity. Nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese and the numbers are growing.
"Clearly more pizza and French fries in schools is not good for kids, but it's good for companies that make pizza and French fries," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that advocates better food and nutrition policies.
Wootan said US food makers trumpet products they say are healthy while at the same time lobbying against regulations aimed at improving the nutritional quality of their products.
"A year ago, I was walking the halls of Congress arm-in-arm with the food industry, fighting for healthier school lunches," Wootan said. "Today, we are on opposite sides, and I'm battling to keep them from weakening school nutrition standards and school marketing guidelines and other provisions."