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Food Fights Heat Up In 2014

The U.S. Capitol building surrounded by scaffolding

Food watchers saw a lot of battles waged in 2014. Opponents squared off over the long-awaited Farm Bill, over whether to label GMO goods, over soda taxes, over cuts to food stamps, over school lunch regulations, and over "ag-gag" crackdowns against undercover filming of animal abuses on livestock operations.

Those pushing for food policy reform suffered some tough losses but garnered a few key victories.

There's a Farm Bill

In January this year, Congress finally got around to passing a $956 billion, 5-year Farm Bill after two years of wheel-spinning, intense industry lobbying and brinksmanship. The bill cut food assistance for low-income Americans, and shifted funding from direct subsidies to crop insurance programs that still bolster big agribusinesses.

Some states fought cuts to their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by tying benefits to heating assistance. Meanwhile, expected savings from those cuts were minimal due to a drop in prices for big crops this year.

School Food Skirmishes

This year also saw fierce fighting over school food standards set in 2010.

The School Nutrition Association, an organization of school cafeteria workers, initially backed healthier changes to school menus that were spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama. But suppliers spent millions of dollars to lobby against the changes, and in a curious turn of events, school nutritionists joined their ranks and spoke out against changes they said were too restrictive and unworkable.

In a Congressional spending bill that passed in the eleventh hour before the 2014 holiday recess, school lunch reforms, including measures to reduce salt and requirements for using whole grains in recipes, were relaxed. This news comes as White House chef and school food reform vanguard Sam Kass prepares to step down.

GMO Labels Unglued

On the GMO front, Vermont passed a label requirement for GMO products in May that would go into effect in 2016, but the Grocery Manufacturers Association has already filed a lawsuit to block it.

In Hawaii, Maui banned cultivation of GMO crops, and now that measure is facing its own challenge from Monsanto.

In Oregon, a label ban vote was close enough to trigger a recount, but the measure was defeated in the end by less than 900 votes.

Calorie Labels Stick

The Food and Drug Administration announced new rules last month that will require restaurant chains and movie theaters to post calorie counts on menus.

Menu label rules were included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Health advocates cheered the FDA's announcement, saying the move could help reverse the country's obesity epidemic.

The rules include alcohol, which account for the fifth-largest source of calories for adults. The rules would go into effect next year, but industry groups have already indicated that legal challenges are on the way.

First Soda Tax

Health advocates have cheered the passage of a penny-per-ounce soda tax in Berkeley, California this November. Fueled by $650,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the pro-tax campaign won the day despite $2.1 million in spending from the beverage industry.

The win could prompt more communities to push similar measures, though dozens of other cities have tried and failed, including nearby San Francisco. The win in Berkeley followed news that a similar ban in Mexico resulted in an estimated 10 percent decline in soda sales compared to the year before, according to the country's health agency.

No Cameras Allowed

This year, more states tried and failed to pass provisions to criminalize the unauthorized taping of livestock operations. The so-called "ag-gag" laws are a response to whistleblower and animal rights campaigns to expose abuses.

In February, Idaho managed to pass such a bill, but others were defeated in Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

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