If you blinked, you missed it. Food policy has been noticeably absent from the debate and headlines.
So why has a political topic that has made major headlines this year — from GMO labeling to Nutrition Facts panel regulations — seemingly been forgotten by the two major party candidates now dominating national news?
Food and beverage remain top of mind for both consumers —also known as voters —and manufacturers. But the candidates have been hesitant to bring up the topic as serious political discourse. And that’s been the case since before the conventions and the primaries.
Experts say this is politics as usual. Food and beverage policy is taking a back seat to other arguably more controversial or impactful topics, such as immigration and reducing the national debt. But manufacturers can and should remain mobilized on the issues that significantly impact the industry — from product formulations and labeling mandates, to food safety and global trade — regardless of which candidate ultimately becomes the 45th president.
More of the same: Presidential candidates traditionally cast aside food policy
Food policy discussions at election time are caught in a web of contradiction. Policy in this area is extremely important to the American public, but at the same time considered unimportant compared to other more divisive issues.
"Food is a very complex topic from a political perspective," Stacy Moore, a foodservice analyst and MBE business owner, told Food Dive.
"In the political sphere, food casts a wide net into virtually every aspect of our society, most particularly the economy and the environment," Moore continued. "In most elections, these two areas have more than enough interest, controversy and polarization without even considering food. In this election specifically, we can’t even seem to get to these major issues because of all the other noise around the nominees."
This year’s election has been rife with non-policy-related controversies that have distracted from governing-related issues. But food policy’s absence from presidential candidates’ rhetoric is all too familiar.
"Notwithstanding the whining from the activist community, food and beverage policy has never risen to the level of presidential debate or politics," Jeff Nedelman, CEO of Strategic Communications LLC, told Food Dive. "It simply is not a top-tier, make-or-break issue such as equal pay for women, the importance of the next Supreme Court nominee in terms of women’s reproductive rights or economic policy. Business wants certainty, and presidential politics are nothing if they are not volatile."
"I don’t believe that even the people who hold food policy at the top of their list of issues believes that either of these candidates will focus on food prior to the election," said Moore.
Even with candidates being able to speak on a variety of issues at tonight’s third and final presidential debate, many experts — including both Nedelman and Moore— don't think food will come up.
Lack of urgency in the food industry’s legislative needs
Part of the reason food policy gets shrugged off during the campaign, at least for now, is a perceived lack of urgency from manufacturers and industry lobbyists, as well as consumers and public health advocates.
"There are a host of issues, from the definition of natural, to front panel nutritional labeling, to the fine, technical details of what is covered and what is not by the recent GMO state preemption law," said Nedelman. "But nothing rises to an urgent need for some kind of legislative fix."
Presidential candidates also often focus on what differentiates themselves. That rhetoric often involves aligning with their party’s core beliefs and rallying those supporters around key issues.
While food policy is critical to manufacturers and consumers, those issues aren’t always clear-cut parts of party platforms. Even if they are included, candidates frequently pass them over to focus on issues that can mobilize or polarize voters, like the economy, immigration and the environment.
"I can see that that many [political] issues will break across party lines with Trump on the side of big business and Clinton on the side of the American worker," said Moore. "…Issues with food do not always break neatly along party lines."
Still, it’s undeniable the sizable role that politics plays in the regulation, safety and even pricing of the American and global food systems.
"Here in America we have been used to cheap and plentiful food," said Moore. "Just as we have learned with cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, cheap food is a result of political action over a long period of time — efforts to move in a different direction have ripple effects throughout the economy and therefore move at glacial speed."
Issues presidential candidates should be discussing
If by some chance the presidential candidates do address food policy during tonight’s debate, it is likely to be through an indirect issue. Moore offered this list of issues that are more likely to be discussed and would still influence policy for food and beverage manufacturers:
- Immigration: Lack of American workers for certain jobs, immigrants’ path to citizenship
- Trade: Access to foreign markets, impact of imports on domestic production
- Minimum wage: Major impact on job creation
- Healthcare: Employer mandates, chronic illnesses like obesity and type 2 diabetes, children’s health and obesity
- Environment: Greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, creation of unsustainable monocultures in the Midwest
- Income inequality and stagnation: Employee wages
- Social issues: Food deserts, food marketing, health and wellness
- Small business: Startup culture and VC investments, keys to economic growth
- Food safety and security: Implementation of FSMA, transparency in recalls and operations
Whether the candidates address food policy at all tonight may be a moot point. But that doesn’t leave manufacturers any less curious about where these candidates stand on the policies that can most impact their businesses.
“It seems as though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump disagree on just about everything,” said Moore. “Issues that impact the food system are closely tied with all the most pressing issues that are facing the country. They have positions about virtually everything on their websites, but you really don’t hear them getting into too much detail.”
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