Food industry experts and policymakers are having difficulty determining the implications of President Donald Trump’s pronouncements regarding foreign trade, including the possibility of imposing tariffs on imports from Mexico, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and ignoring rulings made by the World Trade Organization.
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Adding to the uncertainty, many key presidential advisers and senior agency officials—all with roles to play in shaping food policy—have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Among them are Scott Gottlieb, MD, a former deputy FDA commissioner, nominated to head that agency, and Robert Lighthizer, a Maryland attorney, nominated to be U.S. trade representative. Sonny Perdue, nominated to head USDA, has undergone hearings in the Senate but, as of publication deadline, had not yet been confirmed. Issues involving food imports, exports, and safety will likely be impacted by these and other officials.
Questions also surround emerging domestic policies, including a temporary freeze on new and pending federal regulations until reviewed and approved by the Trump administration; the identification of at least two prior regulations to be eliminated for every new regulation issued; the proposed downsizing of the federal government and slashing of non-defense, discretionary budgets, possibly affecting spending for food safety.
In a preliminary budget submission for Fiscal 2018, the Trump administration is seeking $17.9 billion for USDA, a $4.7-billion or 21 percent reduction from 2017’s funding level. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would remain fully funded, however. (By law, slaughter and processing facilities cannot operate unless FSIS inspectors are present.) But some external research grants could be trimmed, and the budget “focuses” in-house research funding within the Agricultural Research Service to the “highest priority agriculture and food issues,” such as farm productivity, and “addressing food safety and nutrition priorities.”
Funding within FDA for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and food safety is not specifically addressed in the budget, although funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, FDA’s parent agency, would be cut by $15.1 billion, or 17.9 percent over the current year. Fiscal 2018 begins Oct. 1, 2017. The White House plans to submit a traditional full budget in mid-May.
Trump has been explicit about his disdain for government regulations which, he says, have impeded business growth and U.S. productivity, and his desire to repeal or trim back rules that are costly or burdensome. Thus far, however, the Trump administration has not indicated how it views FSMA, whose extensive rules and regulations are in the process of being implemented by industry. Most industry experts doubt that the administration would seek to dismantle FSMA, given that its major provisions have already been issued as final rules and that the law was passed with strong bipartisan congressional and industry support.
The White House, however, has not explicitly addressed its overall philosophy regarding food safety. This has left many people sifting for clues. For example, does Trump’s well-known preference for burgers and steaks cooked well-done mean that he truly appreciates the importance of proper food preparation and handling to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses?
Perhaps more significantly, what, if anything, should be made over the Trump campaign’s online posting—and prompt removal—last September of a fact sheet that highlighted “specific regulations to be eliminated,” including what the campaign referred to as the “FDA Food Police” in the fact sheet? It claimed the FDA Food Police “dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables” and that federal regulations “greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.” Following publicity, fact sheet was quickly removed and replaced with one that did not mention the FDA.
Food and Trade
At the heart of many concerns is how the U.S. food industry may be impacted by major changes to international trade agreements. Trump, both as candidate and president, has made foreign trade a cornerstone of his agenda to strengthen the U.S. economy by promising to make such agreements “freer and fairer for all Americans.” The Trump administration’s trade policy agenda, issued March 1, 2017 by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), promises “a fundamental change in direction of U.S. trade policy” by focusing on bilateral instead of multilateral negotiations and renegotiating and revising agreements “when our goals are not being met.”