WASHINGTON - The federal government is expected to propose new nutrition standards soon that could leave a bitter taste in the mouths of cranberry growers from Massachusetts to Wisconsin.
To address childhood obesity in America, an effort spurred by first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, the Department of Agriculture is finalizing guidelines for what can be sold in school vending machines, stores and a la carte cafeteria lines. Sugar is widely viewed as a target, and sweetened beverages like cranberry juice cocktail could be deemed unhealthy.
That would be unfortunate and unfair, cranberry industry officials say, because the tart, deep red fruit is loaded with nutrients and health benefits. But for consumers to avail themselves of those benefits, cranberries must be sweetened.
"Cranberries can be sweetened with anything," said Linda Prehn, a cranberry grower in Tomah, Wis., citing apple juice as an example. "But you can't eat 'em raw. They're tough to eat straight up."
Prehn, chairman of United Cranberry Growers Cooperative, a collective of 85 growers in Massachusetts, Oregon and Wisconsin in the U.S. and New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada, was among cranberry industry honchos attending the recent inaugural meeting of the Congressional Cranberry Caucus on Capitol Hill.
Prehn and others are hoping the bipartisan caucus led by Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Bill Keating, D-Mass., and Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., can help persuade agriculture officials to make an exception for cranberry products in its nutrition standards for added-sugar products.
"Given the beneficial and scientifically proven health properties of cranberries, we believe there is a need to establish clear standards that recognize cranberries as a part of a healthy diet," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "We ask that you consider including a variety of cranberry juice and dried cranberry products in USDA's food nutrition program so that children, seniors and adults served by these programs are not denied benefits unique to cranberries."
The lawmakers sent a similar letter to the first lady, pointing out cranberries "contribute to whole body health, particularly urinary tract health and the potential to fight cancer and other diseases."
At stake is exclusion from an estimated $2.3 billion school vending machine business and an image that could have a negative impact on the marketing of cranberry products worldwide, particularly cranberry juice cocktail, industry officials say.
"If we're put into a category that says these types of products are unhealthy, we think it would be inaccurate and unfair," said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. "Lumping us in with other beverages that don't have the health benefits associated with them that cranberries do is definitely going to affect our ability to sell cranberry products."
Randy Papadellis, president and CEO of Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., a cooperative owned by more than 700 cranberry growers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, British Columbia and other parts of Canada and 35 grapefruit growers in Florida, said the new nutrition standards could damage the industry and the Ocean Spray brand.
"We obviously would want to be on the list of things USDA and other agencies buy," Papadellis said. "Our concern is more the signal a standard that says cranberries are unhealthy sends out to other constituencies. Many people take their cue from USDA in terms of what is healthy."
Ocean Spray describes itself as the nation's leading producer of canned and bottled juices and juice drinks, with $2.1 billion in sales last year and 2,000 employees worldwide.
The cranberry industry says research indicates the fruit helps prevent urinary tract infections and reduces harmful bacteria in the urethra, bladder and kidneys.
Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis and a former president of the American Dietetic Association, is a cranberry booster.
"Cranberries contain more antioxidants than almost any other fruit out there," Diekman said. "That's why it has such a tart taste. It is a source of vitamin C. Fiber is great in the cranberry."
Yet not all nutritional experts are sold on cranberries as a health food, and some supporters of lowering the sugar intake of children and adults say the need to address the nation's obesity crisis may outweigh the concerns of those in the cranberry industry.
"There's some evidence to show that cranberry juice can prevent urinary tract infections, but that doesn't mean everyone should be drinking cranberry juice every day," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Only 3 percent of kids a year have urinary tract infections, compared to one-third who are overweight. Urinary tract infection is not a booming epidemic. Obesity is."
The USDA already has established new standards for what can be sold in school cafeterias as part of the federal school lunch program and is now preparing criteria for school vending machines.
If the department follows its earlier guidelines, only 100 percent juice beverages would be allowed in vending machines and school stores, Wootan said.
"There's no evidence of any particular public health problem to suggest that cranberry drinks should get a special exemption," Wootan said. "It's curious that the cranberry industry is pressing Congress for nutrient standards that are weaker than what Coke and Pepsi have already agreed to."
Placing cranberry juice in the same category with sodas and other sugary drinks is what the cranberry industry wants to avoid.
"The current debate over added sugar and the effort to help Americans consume less is commendable, but our point is you have to make a distinction between nutrient-dense products and other products that are empty calories," said Terry Humfeld, executive director of the Cranberry Institute in Carver, Mass.