The conclusion of the George W. Bush years and the outset of the Obama administration go down as dark days for food safety. Salsa and peanut butter killed people. Poison pot pies made headlines. The government ordered farmers to destroy hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of tainted crops that turned out not to be tainted.
New food safety laws fixed the issues, but surprisingly (or not), President-elect Donald Trump appears ready to drag the nation back down that path by rolling back or eliminating many of the nation's food safety laws. In a September memo, he stated his intention to target "food and farm hygiene" rules, food temperature requirements, and the "FDA Food Police," among other safeguards.
Trump's list of agriculture advisors and candidates for Secretary of Agriculture also indicate that Big Ag is about to reshape the nation's food policy. It includes people like soda industry and Little Caesars Pizza lobbyist Michael Torrey, and Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller, who is infamous for recently calling Hillary Clinton a cunt on Twitter. (Miller denied responsibility for the tweet and blamed it on a "third-party vendor.") Either way, Big Ag and Big Food stands to benefit, and our health will lose.
That's leaving consumer protection groups and food safety advocates preparing for a fight, though not an unfamiliar one, says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch.
"Deregulation is not a new concept. Trump just used different twists on the rhetoric but we've dealt with these forces for a long time, and we did this with the Bush administration," she tells me. "It's very clear that he ran—especially in rural America—on anti-regulatory rhetoric, and we've got our work cut out for defending the food safety regulations that we have."
Indeed, but before looking forward, it helps to take a quick look back at what happened last time Republicans loosened food safety rules. Some of the highlights:
In 2007, ConAgra's Banquet brand of pot pies sickened 152 people with salmonella poisoning. That same year, ConAgra's salmonella-tainted Peter Pan peanut butter sickened 425 people.
In 2008, a rare strain of salmonella in fresh salsa sickened thousands—as many as 40,273 by one estimate—and caused two deaths in 43 states and Canada.
And in 2009, a salmonella outbreak in a Georgia Peanut Corp. of America factory that produced peanut butter for Little Debbie and Clif Bar, among many others, sickened 22,000 and killed nine. Shockingly, Peanut Butter Corp's CEO was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the deaths.
How could all that happen? Republicans brayed about ineffective government, but that simple explanation omits how they kneecapped the FDA. Years of deregulation and efforts to "shrink the government" started by Reagan and accelerated by both Bush administrations left the FDA underfunded and staffed with big food stooges. They put business's bottom line before the public's health, a practice The Los Angeles Times labeled "e. coli conservatism."
Naturally, people weren't thrilled with having to worry about killer salsa, and that led to one of Obama's first major initiatives—the bipartisan Food Safety Modernization Act. It overhauled the nation's food safety laws for the first time in 70 years, expanded the FDA's ability to recall tainted foods, increased inspections, demanded accountability from food companies, called for accuracy in food labeling, and oversaw farming practices.
Some of its provisions are just going into effect, though it's worth noting that Obama and Congress never provided the FDA with the funding it needed to fully enforce the new rules. Still, there's plenty of evidence that food safety has improved since its implementation, and there's evidence that Trump is indifferent to those results.
In a release entitled "Specific regulations to be eliminated," Trump noted that the FDA rules "govern what soil farmers can use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures, and even what animals might roam which fields and when. It also greatly increased inspections of food facilities, and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill."
This is, of course, absurd, because hygiene and food facility inspections are not bad things. But it's pretty clear Trump isn't a fan of either, or any environmental and food safeguards, and much of the Food Safety Act is probably doomed.
The changes will likely be carried out by someone who serves Big Ag and Big Food. Lovera notes that Trump's agricultural advisory committee "is full of people explicitly from the big food industry, or politicians who are very industry aligned … and these are not leading lights among people looking to do food in a different way."
She added, "There's a professional class of agriculture business lobbyist out there, and Trump talks about 'draining the swamp,' but he is hiring from a pool of people who are these K Street guys and who work for who pays them, and that's Big Ag."
Michael Torrey, who is overseeing food policy on Trump's transition team, lobbies on behalf of Dean Foods; Snac International, the "international trade association of the snack industry"; and Little Caesars, among many more. Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller already said that, if appointed to the federal post, he would eliminate environmental rules for ranchers and farmers. He would also do away with "over-regulation and allow our farming community and ranching community to flourish," ignoring that the two are not mutually exclusive.
But Miller also made one comment that indicates where Trump and the farm industry, which heavily supported him, may stand at odds. Miller said that he would love to open up the Cuban market to American agriculture. Big Ag also wants access to Asian markets, and would get it under the Trans-Pacific-Partnership, which Trump plans to scrap.
Farmers also heavily employ Mexican immigrants, and we know Trump's feeling on them, but it appears the ag industry was willing to set aside those issues if they don't have to deal with food safety and environmental laws.
Beyond that, Michelle Obama's healthy school lunch program, "Let's Move," is another likely casualty of the upcoming changes. While Trump hasn't said much on the topic, Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, who serves on the agriculture advisory committee, recently told reporters, "I would be very surprised if we don't see some major changes on the school lunch program."
With a largely hostile administration and Republican-controlled Congress, food safety advocates are planning to further focus on local initiatives. Claire Jordan, policy and program coordinator for the Center for Food Safety, notes that measures banning the confinement of food-producing animals and planting of GMO crops passed in Massachusetts and California, respectively.
"We definitely are going to be looking for a lot more local initiatives. We have offices across the country and are working on the ground … and we got the ballot initiative wins [in Sonoma County, California and Massachusetts]," she says.
It's worth noting that it's anybody's guess as to what promises Trump follows through on. He seems to be waffling on the Affordable Care Act, and has quietly adjusted parts of his anti-Muslim plans. This is also the same guy who promised to keep lobbyists and DC insiders out of his administration, then immediately stocked his new administration with lobbyists and DC insiders.
Still, there's little that Republicans love more than deregulation. Though the details still aren't clear, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells me activists are "on high alert."
"[Trump's] agriculture advisory committee is packed with agribusiness and food industry reps and included several politicians who have worked to roll back school nutrition," she tells me. "Parents are on the side of healthy school food and won't stand by and let the administration or Congress undo the progress that has been made to improve school nutrition and children's health."
As Sam Kass, a former White House senior adviser on nutrition and personal chef for the Obamas, put it: "Food advocates are already nostalgic for the Obama era and will be playing defense for the next four years."