Barring some dramatic and unforeseen event, President-elect Joe Biden will take office as the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021. What that means for the food industry will depend on some significant unknowns, but, based on the results of the congressional races and Biden’s stated goals and policy positions, we may still get a fairly clear idea of the types of changes likely to occur under a Biden administration.
By way of a civics reminder, Congress writes the laws, and the executive branch, led by the president, enforces those laws. In turn, the laws grant federal agencies the authority to issue regulations, which have the force of law. This is important because, although the executive branch cannot unilaterally enact laws, it does have broad discretionary authority to enact regulations based on its interpretation of the law. That can (and likely will) lead to substantial changes in the way federal agencies, from one administration to the next, enforce the law.
As with any political prognostication nowadays, I would be remiss not make certain disclaimers. To begin with, it appears probable—subject to the results of Georgia’s senatorial runoff elections—that Republicans will retain control of the Senate. Thus, while the Biden administration will certainly pursue a more progressive agenda than the previous administration, its ability to enact legislation will be constrained by virtue of a split control in the legislature.
Additionally, this article is not an endorsement of any policy or administration. Rather, it is intended only to be an objective analysis of what the incoming administration is likely to do, and what may change.
Workforce oversight. In the immediate future, the ongoing pandemic will continue to govern the trajectory of our day-to-day lives. While it appears a viable vaccine is on the near horizon, the coming months are likely to be among the most challenging to date. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the food industry has suffered disproportionately in terms of the occurrence of illness.
As regards the pandemic, the Biden administration is likely to implement much more stringent measures to protect workers. Biden has advocated for enhanced protective measures. Last May, Biden said he supports coronavirus-related workplace safety regulations, even if they raise food prices. Biden has appointed worker advocates to teams responsible for overseeing the meat industry. In the near term, Biden is likely to implement stricter COVID-19 protective measures applicable to employees. In the longer term, Biden will likely re-staff agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which will lead to increased oversight.
Antitrust laws. The Biden administration will likely be more focused on enforcing antitrust laws. During the campaign, Biden asserted that he intended to “strengthen” the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts and the Packers and Stockyards Act. Generally, the argument goes that American food workers and small agricultural businesses are suffering due to increasing market concentration (e.g., monopolistic business practices), particularly in the meat industry. To level the playing field and promote competition, the new administration plans to significantly increase federal enforcement of antitrust laws. Such an approach would disfavor the largest food industry corporations. Biden’s eventual choice for Secretary of Agriculture (unknown at the date of publication) will provide substantial additional insight into what the administration’s approach ultimately will be.
Regulation. In terms of food regulation, the incoming administration plans to streamline and reform existing regulations. What this means is not entirely clear, but we should not expect to see any type of major overhaul. Ideally, streamline and reform means fewer and more effective regulations. However, given the likely expansion of environmental regulations under a Biden administration, the food industry would be well served to begin preparing for more numerous and more stringent environmental regulations.