Where are Food Safety Rules Headed Under Trump?

In this week’s episode of the Trump on Earth podcast, we explore whether federal food safety rules could be on the chopping block. (Photo: USDA via Flickr)

Trump’s big push to rollback federal regulations could impact everything from the price of healthcare to the size and scope of the EPA. But it’s also possible that the President’s effort to trim government oversight might extend to much-less controversial rules on food safety.

During his campaign, Trump released a “fact sheet” in which he characterized key parts of the FDA’s food inspection regime as “overkill” and re-christened FDA inspectors as the “Food Police.” Whether that sentiment is still guiding his approach to food safety remains to be seen (the fact sheet was subsequently removed from his website). But where food safety is headed in the Trump era could depend heavily on how things shake out at two key federal agencies: The Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To some extent, we’re still stuck reading the tea leaves on that front too — in part because Trump’s picks for the heads of both agencies are still awaiting their confirmation hearings. As a doctor and former FDA deputy commissioner, Scott Gottlieb appears to have the proper bonafides when it comes to the ‘drug’ part of the FDA’s mission (though some consumer advocates have raised alarms over his coziness with the pharmaceutical industry). But on the ‘food’ side of things, Gottlieb is pretty much a rookie.

“For me, the first question he needs to get asked is whether he fully understands the primary importance of food safety and the FDA food safety mission to consumers, and how central that is to the success of our whole food system,” says Mike Taylor, who served as the FDA’s “Food Czar” during the Obama administration.

Taylor helped usher in a big 2011 law known as the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was meant to modernize the government’s system of preventing food contamination. But he says the fate of that law is now up in the air.

“The threat is not so much a rollback of the Food Safety Modernization Act from a policy standpoint, but rather whether this administration is going to rollback the resources needed to fully implement that law,” Taylor says. “The question is whether these across-the-board cuts that the President is talking about will go into effect, because if they do, they will severely damage the food safety program and the ability of FDA to meet public expectations on food safety. The FDA only got about half of what Congress itself had estimated would be needed to implement the law. FDA needs more funding to complete the work.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the other major federal player in food safety, and Trump’s pick to lead that agency is more controversial. Sonny Perdue (no relation to the Perdue family that owns a large poultry producer) is a former Georgia governor who oversaw big state budget cuts for food safety — cuts that were later blamed for a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and impacted hundreds of consumers nationwide.

“It’s hard to judge what he will do in his new role based upon events in his previous role,” Taylor says. “But the question for the administration as far as USDA is concerned is: Are they willing to modernize what is a very antiquated food safety mandate that results in consuming a whole lot of resources but not delivering a lot of public health bang for the buck? For example, they’re prohibited from providing food safety oversight on the farm, where the animals are produced and where the hazards typically arise in the first place. There’s been discussion for years about the need to modernize the meat and poultry laws to make them more risk-based and preventative. [But] will they push to modernize the USDA food safety program to bring it up to the level of the FDA program?”

“The question is whether these across-the-board cuts that the President is talking about will go into effect, because if they do, they will severely damage the food safety program and the ability of FDA to meet public expectations on food safety.”

Another huge wildcard in the conversation over food safety is whether Trump’s push to renegotiate trade deals could impact the U.S. agricultural industry.

“Not only does the U.S. farming and food sector depend really, really heavily on exports, but also, we import about half our fruits and about 20 percent of our vegetables,” says Tom Philpott, who covers food and agriculture for Mother Jones. “This is a massive part of our food supply. And these would be among the first things that would go into play in a trade war. Like, if we really got into a trade war with Mexico, you’re talking about major [impacts to] corn exports going south and massive fruit and vegetable exports coming north.”

Philpott says Trump’s tough stance on immigration could also impact the labor pool that the U.S agricultural industry relies on. He says undocumented workers in the United States provide as much as 70 percent of farm labor, and clamping down on the movement of people across the U.S.-Mexico border could put a real squeeze on domestic fruit and vegetable production.

“And then what?” Philpott says. “You can start seeing scenarios of price spikes. You can look at what happened in Georgia in 2011, when there was a massive immigration crackdown and there was an immediate shortfall in farm labor. So all these are wildcards sitting in the deck that we could be dealt.”

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Want to hear more? You can catch all of our conversation with former FDA Food Czar Mike Taylor and Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott on this week’s episode of the Trump on Earth podcast. Reporting by Julie Grant and Kara Holsopple.