The following is a guest post from Sean McBride, founder of DSM Strategic Communications, former executive vice president of communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Association (now known as the Consumer Brands Association) and former director of communications at the American Beverage Association.
If we learned one thing from the 2016 presidential election, it is that election polling is not always right. However, current polls and pundits seem to be gravitating toward a scenario in which former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidency, and Democrats have a good chance to take control of the Senate and increase their majority in the House.
Using that possible election result, let’s take a look at how it might impact food, nutrition and agriculture policy in the next two to four years.
As former President Barack Obama told the opposition party after his 2008 election, “Elections have consequences.” Accordingly, if a Biden administration moves into the White House in January, the food policy landscape could look much different.
While predicting the future is never easy, there are recent lessons from the past that may help. By winning 53% of the presidential vote in 2008, combined with having as many as 60 seats in the Senate and 257 seats in the House, Democrats had a mandate to implement their agenda, with little the opposition party could do to stop them.
And when it came to food policy, implement they did. First Lady Michelle Obama adopted “ending childhood obesity within a generation” as her personal cause. Through legislation, regulation and inviting food companies to change their behavior, Mrs. Obama set out to change the way food is made, marketed and consumed.
From school lunches to soda taxes, Mrs. Obama had wins and losses along the way. Then, with successive GOP victories in Congress and the election of a new president, most of the Obama-era food policy agenda went the way of the dodo under the industry-friendly, regulatory-hostile Trump administration.
If Mr. Biden wins, his administration’s food policy agenda will likely mirror that of Mrs. Obama’s, as well as extend into some new public policy areas that have arisen in recent years.
First, let’s set the table (pun intended). The Obama-Biden food policy agenda was the polar opposite of Mr. Trump’s. The current administration believes in individual responsibility and the power of free markets to govern corporate behavior. The Obama-Biden Administration believed America’s obesity crisis is the result of an unhealthy food supply brought to you by big food companies and consumers’ conspicuous food consumption — things that won’t change without heavy government intervention.
You decide which approach you agree with.
In the meantime, while philosophy is important, it’s the details that matter. So, let’s take a look at some actual food policies — past and future — a potential Biden administration is likely to tee up in its first term:
Taxes: Soft drink taxes were proposed as a partial funding measure for Obamacare, but were left on the cutting room floor after complaints from industry and consumers. Food taxes in some form seem destined to make it into a possible Biden administration’s revenue and public health plans.
Food advertising: Obama’s Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children sought to limit food advertising on TV, video games and the internet. The working group’s voluntary guidelines died a quick death due to pushback by industry, First Amendment concerns and food companies’ promises to strengthen the self-regulatory program, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative of BBB National Programs. Look for deep dives into food marketing restrictions again under a would-be Biden administration.
Food labeling: Consumer activist groups and their allies in government have pushed the FDA to enact a “traffic light” front-of-pack nutrition labeling system for years, an effort that hit its zenith in the early years of the Obama administration. First Amendment issues and the creation of industry’s Facts Up Front labeling program under pressure from the White House blunted the movement but look for its re-emergence under a potential Biden Administration.
FDA GRAS: The Obama-Biden administration’s FDA wielded its Generally Recognized as Safe program forcefully. First it revoked, or threatened to revoke, the GRAS status of food ingredients including partially hydrogenated oils, caffeine and sodium. Then, it bowed to external pressure from consumer groups and the media and requested the food industry make voluntary changes to the self-determination plank of the FDA’s GRAS program. It’s likely a would-be Biden FDA would again leverage GRAS to regulate ingredients it thinks are unhealthy.
SNAP: The Trump administration and its allies in Congress successfully blocked proposals to restrict the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for the purchase of foods high in added sugar and sodium. A possible Biden administration would likely propose new restrictions to SNAP purchases.
Sodium reduction: The Trump administration’s FDA has continued to develop Obama-Biden era voluntary guidelines for food companies to help reduce sodium consumption. Keep an eye on this one under a potential Biden administration to see if voluntary becomes mandatory at some point.
Of course, there are additional legacy items warming up in the next administration’s food policy bullpen, like selecting the next Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, defining the terms “healthy” and “natural,” and settling long-simmering disputes about standards of identity for milk, meat and rice.
As for new policy battles that have emerged in the post-Obama era, there are several complicated and contentious ones that must be dealt with:
Diet and climate change: A potential Biden administration would likely push for federal policies that demonize animal agriculture and promote plant-based diets as means to achieve better public health outcomes and address climate change, as outlined in the Green New Deal and last year’s EAT-Lancet report.
Net zero agriculture: Proposals have largely moved beyond debates about bioengineered crop benefits and wetlands encroachment to whether or not the U.S. can and should achieve carbon neutral status in agriculture production. A complementary effort to the Green New Deal, a would-be Biden administration is likely to take up this cause.
CRISPR: The next presidential administration will have to grapple with tough ethical and safety decisions about the use-of advanced plant gene editing tools like CRISPR. A potential Biden administration would likely regulate these technologies more closely than the comparatively hands-off approach of the Trump administration.
During the Obama years, individuals and companies tasked with food production experienced a blizzard of regulations and guidelines from federal agencies aimed at altering food production and collective and individual nutrition patterns. In addition to the bevy of new public policies, Mrs. Obama and the administration’s political appointees used their bully pulpit to publicly criticize food companies as well as privately urge them to adopt self-regulatory programs to ward off additional government mandates.
Although that agenda was driven largely by Mrs. Obama’s cult of personality, it established a baseline for Democratic administrations of the future. It is a fair bet a possible Biden administration would pick up the Obama food policy playbook, modernize it and run with it.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the self-regulatory program for food advertising.