Ep. 9: Handcuffing the 'Food Police'

USDA inspectors inspect beef at a facility in Plainview, Texas. Credit: Lester Shepherd / USDA

USDA inspectors inspect beef at a facility in Plainview, Texas. Credit: Lester Shepherd / USDA

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 and that is the big question mark going forward.”

And questions over FDA funding are just the beginning. There’s also the possibility that Trump's tough talk on Mexico could lead to a trade war with a country that’s a huge player when it comes to U.S. food imports and exports. And we’re still waiting to see what the U.S. Department of Agriculture might look like under Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor who oversaw big state budget cuts for food safety, which were blamed for a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and impacted hundreds of consumers nationwide.

We’ll dig into all of it — and more — in this week’s episode. 

Trump on Earth