While it may appear safe to assume that President Trump will have no interest in these issues, determining his impact on the food safety agenda actually will require a nuanced effort. Notwithstanding the tweet complaining about the so-called “food police” and a leaked phone conversation about imposing stricter food safety standards for trade purposes, President Trump still could impact policy by virtue of his dining behavior, and previous assertions about food safety economics.
Bill Marler, a noted product liability attorney specializing in foodborne illness cases, alludes to some of these points in a recent posting on his blog. Given the executive order repealing old rules and the proposed across-the-board cut to all federal agencies, it might be easy to assume that President Trump’s interest in food safety issues will be minimal. However, Marler argues that the president is not focused on the issue, implying that the focus is forthcoming.
The president’s proposal for across-the-board spending cuts in order to fund an increase in military spending could facilitate this process because budget cuts are not as straight forward from a food safety perspective.
Inspectors for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are required by law to be present at slaughter and processing facilities on a continuous basis, meaning these establishments cannot operate without an inspector present. Because of this statutory requirement, the vast majority of the FSIS budget is allocated to inspector salaries and other expenses that support inspection activities. Any significant budget reduction at FSIS would involve a reduction in the inspection force and force meat and poultry establishments to scale back operations or even shut down. This was a possibility that the previous Administration faced when the budget sequestration went into effect in 2013.
As Marler noted, President Trump is a self-described germaphobe and that is reflected in his dining habits: he orders his hamburgers and steaks well done. Food safety education directed at consumers has long been an important piece of the work by FSIS and the Food and Drug Administration to reduce foodborne illness. These two primary food safety regulatory agencies combined on an effort with the Ad Council on a national Food Safe Families campaign launched in June 2011 to raise awareness of the risks of foodborne illness. An important component of this campaign featured public service announcements that educated consumers to take specific actions to reduce personal risk, including cooking foods to the right temperature by using a food thermometer.
Despite the success of the Ad Council’s campaign, the percentage of households using a food thermometer remains low. By ordering his hamburgers well done, President Trump understands the importance of cooking them to the correct temperature of 160 degrees F. It is probably a stretch to think that the President’s dining habits could influence consumer behavior and increased use of food thermometers, but any high-profile attention paid to safe food habits is noteworthy.
A noted consumer of fast food meals, President Trump explained in a campaign interview last year that a big fast food franchise can be destroyed with one bad hamburger. While this could be considered a slight exaggeration, the underlying sentiment is true, and history has demonstrated this. Jack-in-the-Box barely survived the E. coli outbreak in 1993 that sickened more than 600 people and killed four children, and there have been a number of instances where small- and mid-sized companies have gone out of business after an outbreak involving their products. Also, have you seen the most recent earnings report from Chipotle? Profits declined 76 percent from the same period last year, meaning they still are facing a long road in recovering from their major food safety outbreaks in 2015.
Clearly, President Trump comprehends some basic economics of foodborne illness, and the impact it can have on consumers, businesses, and trade. As he becomes more familiar with these economic drivers, he will recognize that these are all costs that need to be avoided. Hopefully, he also will recognize that consumers, industry and government are all valuable partners in the effort to reduce foodborne illness rates.
Of course, any attempts to speculate on President Trump’s food safety agenda could immediately become obsolete after a series of early morning, stream-of-consciousness tweets.
Note on author: Formerly the deputy under secretary for food safety at USDA’s Food safety and Inspection Service, Brian Ronholm is now with Arent Fox LLP. For additional biographical details, click here.
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