In office for less than 100 days, President Trump has already been active on issues ranging from health care and immigration to the environment and terrorism.
What he hasn’t done much about are issues related to food.
“It’s fair to say U.S. politics has elevated to a new level of divisiveness, and food policy has taken a back seat,” said Susan Pitman, founder and executive vice president of policy consulting firm FoodMinds.
Pitman and several other thought leaders in food policy discussed what they think the next four years will look like for laws, rules, regulations and enforcement at the Consumer Federation of America’s National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. The only thing they could agree on? It's going to be an interesting next four years.
Richard Frank, a partner at OFW Law and an expert in food policy, said that policymaking in Washington is like a pendulum. What the policy arena is likely to see now is an “inevitable correction of eight years of Barack Obama.”
“The pendulum is going to swing back to the right, with less regulation, less activism, less funding,” he said at the conference, which was attended by many consumer advocates. “I don’t think people in this room should have a whole lot of heart in the next four years.”
“The pendulum is going to swing back to the right, with less regulation, less activism, less funding."
Partner at OFW Law
Frank couched all of his remarks by saying he was only making predictions, and not talking about what he wanted to happen or how he felt about it.
Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), was less even-handed.
“This is a disaster for anyone who cares about health, the environment, civil rights and on and on down the list,” he said.
The FDA under Trump
Trump and the Republican Congress appear bent on undoing many of the policies Obama put in place — and food-related policies seem to be no exception.
Other panelists weren’t quite as cynical as CSPI's Jacobson. Joseph Levitt, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, spent 25 years at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has been a government regulator during several presidential transitions — including ones where the administration’s political party shifted.
As long as the administration values FDA’s position as the top authority on consumer protection, provides the agency with the leadership it needs and fully funds it, food policy will be in a decent position, according to Levitt. Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s choice to lead the agency, is a good bet for the leadership FDA needs, he added. Gottlieb is an FDA veteran, meaning he knows the agency, its mission and challenges well.
Trump’s proposed budget, on the other hand, seeks to cut funds from FDA. While Trump’s budget document — which boasts deep cuts to many government agencies — is unlikely to become law without significant changes, Levitt said the type of drastic cuts that may be proposed could hamper FDA’s ability to do its work.
“The FDA is unlike most federal agencies,” Levitt said. “Almost all of its funding goes to people who work there. If the budget drops, the headcount drops.”
Whether Trump protects FDA or not, there are many issues in food policy that are currently pending. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which adds new policies and processes for ensuring safety in the food supply, is in the midst of being rolled out. A revamped Nutrition Facts label is supposed to appear on all products starting in July 2018. The FDA is currently working on developing voluntary sodium reduction guidelines for food and beverage products. A law was signed last year requiring the disclosure of genetically modified organisms on food labels. New definitions of terms like “healthy” are being worked on.
What is likely to happen to those initiatives? Panelists were generally optimistic about most of these policies continuing to go forward. FoodMinds' Pitman said her organization conducts surveys to measure how people feel on a variety of issues dealing with food. Recently, food policy and regulation has become more bipartisan, she said, and more Republicans now feel that government intervention in food and nutrition could be good.
“If Trump wants to employ an 'America first' policy … ag and food should be priority issues, and access to nutrition could be a bipartisan effort."
Founder & Executive Director of FoodMinds
Given that food policy is vitally important and has a significant impact on the health and well-being of Americans, Pitman said it fits right in with Trump’s agenda.
“If Trump wants to employ an 'America first' policy … ag and food should be priority issues, and access to nutrition could be a bipartisan effort,” she said.
Regardless of whether the president agrees with that sentiment, most ongoing regulatory efforts aren’t likely to stop. FSMA will most likely be fully implemented as planned, according to Levitt, as the law was carefully developed over several years and regulations were drafted to specifically address how to implement it. FDA is currently ramping up training to help prepare state level inspectors to ensure the law’s success. Everyone — government, consumers and manufacturers — wants to see FSMA enacted.
The only thing that might get in the way, Levitt said, is a lack of funds.
Fund cuts to FDA “would be devastating," Jacobson commented. "They would be paralyzed.”
Most panelists predict a more sluggish implementation of other pending laws and regulations, namely the revamped Nutrition Facts panel. Industry groups have asked FDA to delay the new label to 2021. All but Jacobson said that given the reasoning behind the request, it makes sense to implement the new label at the same time as the mandatory GMO labels.
“The one outside concern about marrying up those two issues is God knows when we’ll see GMO,” Frank said. “Congress set a date, but Congress sets lots of dates.”
Regulatory red flags
One thing that could throw a wrench into food policy is a bill currently moving through Congress that makes it much more difficult for agencies to enact new rules and regulations — regardless of whether scientific research makes it clear they are needed. CSPI has taken to calling the Regulatory Accountability Act the “Filthy Food Act” because it will make it more difficult to pass any food-safety related regulations. So far, the bill has already passed the House of Representatives.
“It’s basically paralyzing the government,” Jacobson said. “Not just food, but across every regulatory front the government has.”
“[The Regulatory Accountability Act is] basically paralyzing the government. Not just food, but across every regulatory front the government has.”
Executive Director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest
The Regulatory Accountability Act is popular with many business groups and has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable. Jacobson said CSPI is currently behind a campaign to get food manufacturers and retailers that are members of those groups to oppose the legislation.
Regardless of whether the bill passes, new policies are not expected, given the Trump administration’s policy on regulations and the general feelings of Republicans on the issue.
“There won’t be a lot of new regulations, but there will be a lot of enforcement,” Frank said. “That’s what Republicans do.”
Four years of standing still?
Although experts don't hold out much hope for federal food policy to grow and develop while Trump is in the White House, panelists seemed optimistic that there are other avenues for advancement.
Connected and caring consumers, combined with small, mission-oriented food companies, have created a different sort of business environment. Instead of the government issuing regulations on health, sustainability and energy, many companies are coming up with their own policies, announcing them and working to meet them. Think of Mars phasing titanium dioxide out of its products, or AB InBev pledging to get all electricity for its brewing operations from renewable sources.
“Companies are willing to say, ‘This is the 21st century.’ They’re willing to stick their neck out a bit,” Jacobson said.
There are still policy innovations to be made. Jacobson plans to bring CSPI’s advocacy to the state and local level, looking to make changes in local areas that will leverage federal policy. The provision requiring restaurants to put calorie counts on their menus started out with local laws, and then was added to the Affordable Care Act. CSPI is currently backing a California bill requiring warning labels on food containing artificial colorings.
“There won’t be a lot of new regulations, but there will be a lot of enforcement. That’s what Republicans do.”
Partner, OFW Law
“Getting disparate laws was ultimately a very powerful way to bring industry to the table and come together on something good,” he said.
Several panelists said they think that the Trump administration offers more opportunity for thinking outside of the box. Considering Trump is not a typical Republican, there may be less conventional ways of working together — as long as food policy finally gets to the forefront of discussions, Pitman said.
“He’ll be interested in spurring innovation,” he said. “How do you marry up the public health goals with interests of the industry?”
Not everyone is onboard. According to Jacobson, it’s time for everyone to fight back against the choices the administration will make.
Frank, on the other hand, suggested that people pick their battles. He advocated for a return to making food policy based on science — not feelings about regulations or ingredients.
“Let’s get that pendulum back to the middle where science rules, not politics,” Frank said.
The changing of political regimes is normal for policymakers, Levitt said. Every presidential administration has its own unique opportunities for good, even the Trump administration.
“I urge people to look for those and rally around those,” he said. “Use this as a time to solidify gains and implement them well. As the old saying goes, 'Every hand’s a winner, every hand’s a loser.' Take this hand and play it right.”