The controversy went briefly viral, then, like the “Food Police” section of the fact sheet itself, faded into the virtual infamy of the Internet as the next political controversy took over the headlines. While QA generally steers away from politics, and this column is not meant to indicate a partiality for either side of the Presidential race, the brief moment that FDA and food safety took on an international spotlight was significant if only because regulation vs. self-policing has been a long-standing industry controversy, with QA coverage nearly as far back as we’ve been in existence (e.g., “Can We Self-Police?” August/September 2008; “Viewpoint: A Merging of Camps,” March/April 2009.)
In case you missed it (which is, in fact, rather likely), the controversy was stirred by a September fact sheet posted online by the Trump campaign, which included a statement that, among the “specific regulations to be eliminated” in his economic plan would be “The FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food. The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when. It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”
But don’t try to go to the campaign site and find it. Soon after its publication, the fact sheet was deleted, amended, and reposted without the FDA references … but not before the page was picked up, highlighted, and tweeted — and retweeted over 700 times.
It is that original Tweeted screenshot that generated headlines ranging from MSNBC’s “Trump’s FDA plan should raise concerns for Americans who eat food” to Forbes’ “But Donald Trump Was Right — Heinz Ketchup Is Why We Can Kill FDA Food Regulations.” While the majority of responses decried the elimination of FDA policing and rules, there were those who saw the statement as having some validity.
A New York Times article provides some balance, citing the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as being in response to the 2010 peanut Salmonella outbreak, noting the more recent cantaloupe and ice cream Listeria outbreaks, and citing former FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor as saying, “Eliminating FDA’s food safety role would make more consumers sick, destroy consumer confidence at home, and damage American competitiveness in global food markets.”
As a counterpoint, the article also cites Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions as saying, “In Washington, if you propose to pull back any regulation that has a good title, like food safety, then somebody says you want to poison the American people, and so forth. But if it can be established that they are not really beneficial, oftentimes the regulations can actually make things more unsafe.”
An article that may be of even greater interest to the food industry is that by Forbes contributor Tim Worstall of the UK. Countering a Think Progress fact-sheet response that Heinz Ketchup’s market dominance is proof that regulation is needed, Worstall writes, “Regulation, in general, followed the clean up of the food marketplace, not caused it. And those big brands that are still with us from those unregulated days are the ones which killed rather fewer of their customers back then. That is, the general free market story, that manufacturers tend not to want to kill their customers, is the correct one.”
And with Heinz being the leading brand long before the food regulations were adopted, Worstall states, “Heinz Ketchup is not proof that we need food regulation. It’s that markets, brands and reputations already provide regulation for us.”
Perhaps rather than taking down the post at the first sign of dissension, the campaign should have given an explanation for the stance. I’m certain it’s a position the industry would be interested in hearing.
What are your thoughts?
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.