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USDA: Onward and Upward

Under the Obama administration, federal agencies have started taking progressive steps away from their former selves. We’ve written about this happening with the Food and Drug Administration, and it appears the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing the same.

So what are we talking about here — an overhaul of organic? The end of large-scale farming? Noooo. Like its big brother the FDA, the USDA has come under leadership that’s forward-thinking, yet still willing to extend an olive branch of diplomacy to the food industry. They’re working to make modest-yet-meaningful changes within the agency’s current mandate.

Two examples:

Earlier this week, the USDA announced an initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” aimed at increasing funding and awareness for local food systems. With a price tag of $65 million, the program is ambitious, and it’s addressing an issue of great interest to supermarkets, who have been stepping up their selection of local products but perhaps haven’t quite perfected the process.

The USDA has also added to its docket plans to redefine what “natural” means. Many retailers can agree — this has been a source of consumer confusion for years now, and it’s about time the agency cleared things up. Right now the voluntary rule dictates that products only be “minimally processed” and without additives. There’s a lot of wiggle room in there for manufacturers with “unnatural” intentions.

But perhaps the most telling indication that change is afoot at the USDA is this: a once-a-week ban on donuts and fried foods in the cafeteria.