As in most areas of policy under a Trump Administration, the prospects for food safety in the next four years remain unclear, to say the least. Trump has yet to name a nominee for FDA Commissioner. Likewise, the top food safety position in the USDA also remains vacant. Each of the candidates currently rumored to be under consideration to head the FDA come from a business, rather than public health, background, and are likely to focus mainly on the agency’s role in the approval of new drugs; the next FDA Commissioner will likely have little to no experience, or interest, in food safety.
Existing vacancies are just one reason why Trump’s victory has occasioned a moment of deep uncertainty for those of us engaged on this issue. Trump himself is essentially an empty vessel when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of policy (no matter which one we are speaking of), and it is far from clear who or what might end up controlling that space. On some issues, congressional Republicans appear to be driving the agenda; on others, Trump’s appointees and his acolytes have the whip hand. Lobbyists will undoubtedly play an important role on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, their influence enhanced by an executive leadership that lacks experience and distrusts its own experts, not to mention their deep ties with business and lobbyists.
As a candidate, Trump promised to rein in “the FDA Food Police,” and his campaign published on its website a proposal to roll back food safety regulations Trump called “inspection overkill.” However, this proposal was later deleted. With these somewhat conflicting signals, it’s hard to know how the new Administration will approach food safety issues. Yet in light of this uncertainty, we can still consider the broader range of possibilities at hand. Notably, food safety issues also illustrate some of the larger policy dynamics at play in the Age of Trump.
Let’s start with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Passed by Congress in 2010, this landmark legislation aims to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness by enhancing FDA capacity to inspect production facilities and enforce regulations that require manufacturers to adopt best practices in preventing contamination. In the years since its passage, the FDA has been working to implement various aspects of the law through the promulgation of regulations that specify exactly what procedures food producers must follow and what the powers of the federal government to enforce them are. These include requiring food production facilities to develop safety plans to reduce or prevent hazards and verifying that food imports meet agreed safety standards.
In the case of the FSMA, most of this process is now complete with twelve final rules officially on the books. Reversing or eliminating these rules would require either an act of Congress or the promulgation of new rules that supersede those currently in existence. Both avenues would be a slow and difficult trek. In the meantime, the rules are in force and the food industry has invested significant resources into compliance. Even an executive at Cargill—one of the nation’s largest privately-held corporations, involved in the purchasing and distributing of agricultural commodities—stated, shortly after the election, that FSMA is “a good regulation we support…the government has a role in assuring the things we are doing to support safe food.” Despite the Trump Administration’s rhetoric about the burdens of government red tape, food safety regulations benefit the big players in the industry by helping to protect their brands from costly outbreaks while imposing production costs that reduce competition from smaller producers.
This is not to say that the FSMA is immune to political challenges or that the new law will guarantee our food continues to be safe. Presidents still have two important weapons at their disposal to control the bureaucracy and put their stamp on policy, budgeting, and personnel. The Trump Administration could scale back its budget requests for food safety measures and propose cuts in user fees that provide funds for inspection and enforcement, as they’ve proposed doing with other policies they oppose, like abortion rights. These actions would reduce the force and efficacy of the new law. Similarly, how exactly the FDA and USDA will exercise their powers over food safety will depend also on the many individuals that compose its bureaucracy, not simply the department heads. Unfortunately, many of these will be political appointees chosen on the basis of their loyalty to Trump’s deregulatory agenda. And food safety depends enormously on the front lines, where inspection and enforcement take place. These positions could be eliminated through the budget process or simply left unfilled through Trump’s federal hiring freeze. Although the executive order implementing the freeze includes an exemption in matters of national security or public safety, it is unclear whether this would be interpreted to include public health capacities. Already, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service—the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, and eggs—announced there would be delays in lab tests through early March as a result of the hiring freeze.
More broadly, food safety challenges are changing due to the evolving nature of illness-inducing pathogens and the interconnected nature of industrial food production and distribution. Starving agencies of resources, leaving critical vacancies unfilled, and politicizing the bureaucracies diminishes government capacity to meet these challenges when they arise. One of the unfinished legacies of the Obama Administration was an effort to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria that included the elimination of antibiotics for growth promotion in animals. Obama even called the rise of antibiotic resistance “a serious threat to public health” and “a national security priority.” In contrast, it would appear that the Trump Administration is unwilling to address these emergent risks and likely will be less able to protect the public when dangerous outbreaks occur.
Food safety is a matter of life and death for those immediately affected by foodborne illness (the numbers of which may grow in light of the new Administration), but this issue is also part of a much broader lesson for our time. Trump rose to power partly on a rejection of science and expertise, a view that dovetails easily with general hostility toward government and so-called elites. Yet, Trump now stands atop a bureaucracy—one of several—that he has denigrated at every turn, and he is pursuing policies that will likely diminish the scientific and administrative capacity of the government he leads. Consequently, Trump’s pursuit of short-term political advantage will have long-term dire consequences for all of us—and, we can hope, eventually for his presidency as well.
Food safety is one of many areas that relies, inherently, on experts, in this case to make sure that the food we eat is safe. However, the authority of experts also relies on a deep reservoir of trust in government agencies like the FDA, so that they may do their jobs. Trump’s words and deeds have already undermined this trust greatly, and this is true of the FDA as well as many other policy areas. In the end, his promise to “drain the swamp” only poisons the well, leaving the country unsure of who or what to believe. Having unleashed forces of chaos he will find very difficult to control, Trump may discover that, the next time a crisis emerges, whether it be in food safety or another area of public policy, he simply no longer has the tools he needs to respond.