Obama food-policy team assesses the road ahead

Members of the Obama administration who helped shape food policy assessed their accomplishments over the past eight years, as well as the road ahead under President-elect Donald Trump, at a briefing in Washington, D.C. They stressed that the new administration should consider food and ag policies through the lens of rural voters, food businesses and consumers that are already voting in the marketplace for the food they want.

“Health, wellness, safety, social impact, engagement and transparency — those are the forces at work today,” said Michael Taylor, a former FDA deputy commissioner for foods, stressing that businesses have been responding to these new demands. Sam Kass, a former senior policy adviser in the White House, pointed out that when the Obama administration was coming into office, “health was not a priority for the food industry. Now it’s a [top-10] priority for major companies” and he didn’t see that changing.

Kathleen Merrigan, a former USDA Deputy Secretary, noted that the USDA programs that the Obama administration promoted helped farmers in rural communities by “capitalizing on what was already going on at a local level.” Programs like farm-to-school created new markets for farmers, meaning jobs, as well as healthier school-lunch alternatives for children.  Aside from improving nutrition and childhood food security, the economic results were meaningful, she said, citing a series of USDA reports.

If there was one message that the panelists returned to repeatedly, it was that the Obama administration had contributed to what was already going on in the marketplace. Eric Kessler of Arabella Advisors, which works on food policy and advises charities and private investors, said there was an appetite for this approach on both sides of the aisle in Congress, calling it a “pragmatic” way to craft a “centrist, consumer-driven agenda.” He said he hoped a new administration would see the value of this strategy, “if not on the same issues, at least with a similar approach.”

Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the local and sustainable agriculture programs that were funded kept money in rural communities, rather than having it siphoned off to the biggest farming interests outside those communities. “Seventy-five percent of the people we polled said these sorts of programs were highly valued, because they put money in local and regional economies,” Salvador said.

Kass also praised Taylor for making progress on reducing antibiotics in the livestock industry, noting that “it will be illegal by the end of this month to use antibiotics for growth promotion. That is transformational.” Taylor, a senior fellow a Freedman Consulting, attributed the progress to drug companies and producers who wanted to win consumer acceptance. But he said there was more work to be done, especially in terms of monitoring the way the drugs were used.

Asked about advice for an incoming administration, Merrigan, who is now executive director of sustainability at George Washington University, said, “I’ve got a million ideas.” She said she would be happy to talk with incoming USDA officials, noting that she has always worked with Republicans. But it seemed evident from the comment that she not gotten any calls yet.