(CBS News) The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected to propose new nutrition standards for what can be sold at school vending machines, with sugar widely expected to be a target, according to a report from USA Today.
The upcoming rule changes have caused the cranberry industry to go on the offensive because its sugar-sweetened cranberry cocktails could be considered unhealthy under the new rules.
The changes are part of first lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack's plan to make school lunches more nutritional. They both announced in January that lunches served to the 32 million schoolchildren who participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs would meet new nutritional standards, with less sodium and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
In February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told HealthPop in an interview that the next phase of the new school lunch standards would be to make vending machine snacks and other a la carte foods sold at schools healthier.
"The key is to send a consistent message," Vilsack told HealthPop at the time. "We want the healthy choice to be the easy choice."
Cranberry industry officials however say nutrition standards at schools could be unfair to their industry, because cranberries must be sweetened because the tart fruits are tough to eat without sweetening. The issue was brought to light at a recent inaugural meeting of the bipartisan Congressional Cranberry Caucus on Capitol Hill, according to USA Today.
The Associated Press cited a Boston Globe report that Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Mass. joined the committee, saying while they support the overall goal of the government's campaign, an exception should be made for cranberries because of their overall health benefits. According to the AP, Massachusetts is the second largest cranberry producer in the country, behind Wisconsin.
USA Today reports the committee also includes Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Bill Keating, D-Mass.
"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 committee wrote in a letter to Secretary 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 also sent a letter to the first lady, touting cranberries' abilities boost urinary tract health and protect against cancer.
According to WebMD, several studies - many of which were sponsored by juice manufacturer Ocean Spray - show that cranberry juice or cranberry juice cocktails may prevent urinary tract infections in people who suffer UTIs frequently, because cranberry might stop bacteria from sticking to the sides of the tract. Cranberries however have not been shown as effective treatments for UTIs, WebMD reported.
The fruit's antioxidant properties have been tied to protecting against cell damage that could lead to cancer.
Randy Papadellis, president and CEO of Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., a cooperative owned by more than 700 cranberry growers in the U.S. and Canada, told USA Today that the new nutrition standards could damage the industry.
"Our concern is more the signal a standard that says cranberries are unhealthy sends out to other constituencies," Papadellis said. "Many people take their cue from USDA in terms of what is healthy."