After a long and arduous campaign, food policy experts and lobbyists are still trying to decipher what a Trump presidency will mean for the industry and consumers' dinner plates.
Despite being an issue that impacts every American, the future of our food system was not a centerpiece of either presidential campaign. While Trump has yet to put forth a comprehensive plan for food and agriculture, his rhetoric on the trail and since suggests that deregulation will be a major theme.
Regulation has long been seen as a dirty word by Republicans, so it is no surprise that they plan to take aim at a number of policies that were put into place under President Obama now that they control the presidency, House and Senate.
President-elect Trump has been outspoken in the past about his desire to decrease the scope of the Food and Drug Administration. In a fact sheet released by his campaign in September, the then-GOP nominee outlined his plan to temper the "food police."
"The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when," the statement said. "It also greatly increased inspections of food 'facilities,' and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill."
The fact sheet was later removed from his website and replaced with a plan that omitted any mention of the FDA.
The comments seemed a direct attack on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Signed into law by President Obama in 2011, it was the most extensive reform to food safety regulations in more than 70 years.
Historically, the role of the FDA had been to respond to contamination in the food supply. The act shifted the focus of the agency to preventing foodborne illnesses by expanding its ability to increase inspections of food producers, recall tainted foods and expand oversight to foreign suppliers.
While largely lauded as a bipartisan effort, there was some opposition by small farmers who feared that compliance with the law would be a burden that their businesses would suffer under. Ann Thrupp, executive director, Berkeley Food Institute said that lessening those regulations could present an upside for those farmers who have found them challenging.
But she also cautioned that rolling back FSMA could have dangerous consequences for the general public. "If he [Trump] does scale that back, it could lead to an increase in foodborne illness," said Thrupp.
While the U.S. maintains one of the safest food systems in the world, foodborne illnesses continue to be a significant threat to public health. Every year about 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When asked how the incoming administration might impact the future of food safety under FSMA, the FDA declined to offer any details on how its role might shift. "We cannot speculate about specific legislative changes, said a spokesperson for the agency. "FDA has a long history of bipartisan support and stands ready to work with the new administration to protect people's health and ensure the safety of the American food supply."
Food labeling is another area that could experience reversals.
During the last eight years, the Obama administration pursued aggressive food labeling policies to the chagrin of much of big food and big agriculture. Despite significant resistance, he pushed through regulations to add calorie counts to menus and revise the Nutrition Facts panel on packaged foods to list added sugars and update serving sizes to common household units of measure. In July, he signed into law the controversial GMO label bill that created a federal standard for labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients.
Trump has mostly remained mum on food labeling but has stated his opposition to GMO labeling. But the Republicans have been much more explicit about their feelings on the topic.
"The intrusive and expensive federal mandates on food options and menu labeling should be ended as soon as possible by a Republican Congress," the GOP stated in its 2016 platform. "We oppose the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food, which has proven to be safe, healthy, and a literal life-saver for millions in the developing world."
Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield and chairman of of the labeling advocacy group, Just Label It, believes that Republicans can try to reverse regulations, but they cannot turn back the clean food movement that is underway. "There has been another decade of double-digit growth in the good food space," he said. "In contrast, conventional foods in most categories have seen no growth or declines."
With consumer demand for organic, non-GMO foods continuing to increase and outpace conventional food, Hirshberg speculated that Republicans trying to clamp down on the industry could actually undermine Trump's job creation efforts. But if the party decides to go that route, he expects emotions to run high. "If these guys are crazy enough to open that can of worms again then people will take to the streets."
The incoming administration could also present a huge change in how the Environmental Protection Agency governs. During Trump's candidacy, he avowed to dismantle the EPA and then walked that back and stated that he would eliminate a significant number of regulations. Among those that will likely come under fire is the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which he has called "intrusive."
Instituted in 2015, WOTUS was billed as a way to protect the nation's drinking water by defining and expanding the range of waters under federal jurisdiction to include include tributaries, streams and wetlands. When the rule was finalized, Obama remarked it would "restore protection for the streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation's water resources, without getting in the way of farming, ranching or forestry."
But farmers contend that they have been the ones most hurt by this rule, and it undermines their ability to carry out routine agricultural practices. They argue that small bodies of water on their property expose them to undue regulation and could require them to obtain federal permits that dictate how they use their own land.
"The EPA has been overzealous and overreaching in their attempts to mitigate the inevitable environmental impacts of farming, said Will Rodger, director of policy communications, American Farm Bureau. "They have missed the practicality and reasonableness of what they are asking for.
In September the Senate majority staff of the Committee on Environment and Public Works released a scathing report claiming that the WOTUS rule does not provide enough guidance as to "what makes a connection significant enough to establish jurisdiction." It also detailed more than a dozen case studies where they said the EPA claimed authority to regulate "puddles, water-filled areas on crop fields and erosional features."
Inc. reached out to the EPA for comment on the report's findings, but had not received a response at the time of press.
"We would like to have a practical and workable solution rather than having an aggressive and hostile EPA suing at the drop of a hat," said Rodger. "We expect a much more pragmatic approach from the Trump administration."
Proponents of WOTUS advocate its importance in protecting our waters. "Once pollutants get into the ground water, they move pretty freely, so it makes a lot of sense to expand the types of waters covered by the EPA," said Bob Martin director of food system policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. He brushed off claims that the EPA wants to regulate every puddle and ditch in rural America as a "scare tactic used primarily by the American Farm Bureau."
The latest showdown over our food system is only beginning, and it will be hard for many in the arena to resist politicizing every part of the debate. And while it cannot be denied that food is a big business, we cannot forget that it is also about feeding people.
"Food policy is not a partisan football. We all eat, we all drink water and we all want our families to be safe," said Hirshberg.