Of Juice, Milk and Soda

Beverages Face Off Over School Choice

Posted October 23, 2007 at 6:38pm

How sweet it isn’t.

For years, junk food and soda reigned supreme in schools.

That could all change if Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Tom Harkin finally has his way. The Iowa Democrat has been pushing to try to broker an agreement to curb high-fat and high-calorie food and beverages in schools for the past 15 years.

Harkin’s staff has been working in earnest for the past five months to get a consensus on a comprehensive school nutrition guideline add-on to the farm bill — but without complete success.

One major point of contention: beverage standards, the details of which have pitted the milk, soda and juice sectors of the beverage industry against each other.

The powerful American Beverage Association, which represents soft drink producers, supports Harkin’s effort.

“There’s enthusiastic backing from the leadership from the ABA,” said Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association. “The question is probably one for the Senator, is there enough time to get everything worked into a very large bill.”

With the Senate Agriculture Committee poised to mark up the 2007 farm bill on Wednesday, time ran out yesterday to get school nutrition guidelines into the markup. But that doesn’t mean Harkin is finished. Talks were ongoing late Tuesday with industry groups to try to determine whether an agreement could be reached so it could be added later when the bill hits the Senate floor.

“Our nation’s children deserve school nutrition standards that are based on the best possible science,” Harkin said in a statement to Roll Call. “School breakfast and lunch programs adhere to strong guidelines, but as soon as students leave the cafeteria, they are inundated with the over-promotion of junk food in vending machines and snack bars,” he continued. “Thirty years is far too long to allow our nutritional guidelines in schools to remain stagnant. We must address this problem and do what is right for the health of our kids.”

The beverage association’s support is largely based on the fact that Harkin is using almost identical language to that of the voluntary guidelines the group brokered in 2005 with the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

At that time, beverage behemoths like PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and Coca-Cola saw the writing on the wall: that business as usual was not going to continue.

So they worked out voluntary guidelines of 120 calories per 8 ounces, which allows water-based drinks like Gatorade, Propel and Powerade, along with diet sodas, to remain in schools. (Under the agreement, “full calorie” drinks like Pepsi and Coca-Cola would be completely phased out by 2009.)

The problem is that milk and juice producers, who don’t belong to the beverage association, weren’t part of the talks that led to the voluntary agreement. As a result, most juices, like Welch’s, and milk products, could not meet the separate calorie criteria set up under the agreement.

“Those initial guidelines did have standards for juice and milk, but the ABA doesn’t represent milk processors or producers and they weren’t consulted at all,” said James Mulhern, of Watson/Mulhern, who lobbies on behalf of the National Milk Producers Federation. “They effectively would block milk sales and vending ala carte, which is not something you want.”

In June, Harkin staffers circulated a proposed school nutrition guideline that caused an uproar. That’s because juice and milk producers thought they were being squeezed out of the school market.

Neely, however, says the ABA needed to come up with an agreement, and because it represents the vast majority of beverage makers, went ahead and did so.

“From a practical standpoint the members of the ABA represent over 90 percent of the business that is conducted in schools,” Neely said. “The process was productive in getting an agreement with 90 percent of the market … and you’ve gone a long way to changing the landscape in schools.”

Welch’s, the Massachusetts grape cooperative, went on the offensive this summer with milk producers, writing letters, meeting with their delegation and trying to work with the Senate Agriculture Committee to come to a resolution.

Their efforts culminated at the end of July with a letter from six Senators: Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) asking Harkin not to go solely with the “Soda Deal”-based standards but to use those proposed by the Institute of Medicine’s April 2007 report on school nutrition standards, which would not use calories as the sole criteria.

“The letter was done to send a message to Sen. Harkin that a calorie limit is not consistent with the IOM,” one juice industry lobbyist said. “As far as we can tell they pulled numbers out of the air.”

Others in the juice industry have argued that the farm bill isn’t the place for trying to set limits for school nutrition, fighting for any legislation to be put in the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs, which is up in 2009. And they want to use more than just calories as the basis for deciding which beverages are allowed in schools.

“This is an important issue that we don’t need to do piecemeal,” another juice industry lobbyist said. “Our concern is codifying a standard just for beverages based on a single criteria and not looking at all foods in a more wholistic fashion.”

A spokesperson for Welch’s did not return calls.

The current draft language that supporters now hope will added to the farm bill as an amendment could increase the calorie amounts suitable for 8 ounce containers. This would allow most juices, including Welch’s. to be sold in schools.

The Juice Producers Association, whose members include both small and large producers polled its membership earlier this week and says it now no longer opposes the language, according to Carol Freysinger, executive director of the association.

“It’s hard for us to be thoroughly supportive because its going to be exclusionary to some extent, even a small extent for our members,” Freysinger, referring to very high calorie fruit juices, said. “The association is also concerned that the language may be inconsistent with FDA regulations of juices.

While beverage standards have proved difficult, it hasn’t been as difficult with junk food.

“The food side has nutrition standards for foods in schools and have been easier to set than the beverages,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I think most of the substantive issues have been agreed to, but there are several details still being worked out.”

Still, with Harkin unable to broker a deal by Tuesday evening, the likelihood of whether he’ll try and add it as an amendment on the Senate floor was unclear. Supporters, however, remain optimistic.

“It’s a really important policy that needs to have all the details worked out,” said Wootan. “If we can’t get it done by tomorrow there is another opportunity to do it on the floor, so I don’t think it isn’t done until the farm bill is passed.”