Election 2012

10 Federal Food-Policy Issues Obama and Romney Should Discuss

Here are 10 important federal food-policy issues the presidential candidates should be discussing but have ignored until now.

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Chew on this: Barbra Streisand won't be voting for Mitt Romney this election cycle.

In a recent Huffington Post column endorsing President Obama, she writes that she's behind Obama in part because his opponents often "challenge current regulations and try to block new regulations that help to protect… the food we eat. Just recently, House Republicans went to great lengths to block the implementation of a new food safety law, while also trying to cut the budgets of agencies that oversee food safety."

Streisand isn't the only one weighing in on the presidential candidates and their food policies in the weeks leading up to the election.

Grist's Tom Laskawy, for example, dislikes "what we know about [Mitt] Romney's food and agriculture policy" while lamenting what he says is a current president who has in several ways done little more than pay lip service to the priorities of advocates like Laskawy during his four years in office. One Obama shortcoming Laskawy points to is that the president "loves… the regulatory power of the state too little."

Michael Pollan, the journalist, author, and academic, recently spent 2,000 words in The New York Times Magazine positing the existence of a national "food movement"—something he both suggests may be "millions" strong and admits may be little more than wishful thinking on his part.

Pollan claims that California's ballot initiative on GMOs, Prop 37, will test whether his "so-called movement" (Pollan's own words) is a force or a farce. And, writes Pollan, President Obama is "[o]ne person in Washington who would surely take note of the California vote"—at once both welcoming and suggesting the pre-ordination of the incumbent president's re-election.

Me? I could not care less who will be the next president. Keep Food Legal, the nonprofit I lead, also takes no position in this (or any) election.

Alas, just because the occasional columnist (or singer/actress) weighs in on food-policy issues doesn't mean the candidates themselves have much of anything to say on these issues.

As is so often the case, today's presidential candidates are almost as bad at talking about important issues as they are at dealing with those issues once they're in office. Food-policy issues are no exception to this rule.

Take the candidates' recent responses to a questionnaire released by the United Fresh Produce Association, a large produce trade association, in which Obama and Romney each laid out positions on a variety of food-related issues—one of the few times this election cycle where the candidates have even addressed the politics surrounding food.

The responses to the questionnaire are almost without exception superficial frippery. For example, both candidates nod toward reducing obesity. And when it comes to the regulatory burden faced by farmers, the candidates mimic one another's empty gestures. Obama refers to the need to "reduce regulatory burdens on agricultural producers." Romney, meanwhile, notes farmers are "vulnerable to bureaucratic overreach."

While none of this is particularly useful to any potential voter, a close look may reveal some hidden details.

For example, Obama mentions the word "program" seven times in his responses, while Romney mentions the word only once. Obama talks about "supporting programs that focus on fruits, vegetables, nuts and organic crops," while Romney urges "moving away from decades of government intervention and subsidies toward a more market-based system."

But a close parsing of the minutiae of a special-interest questionnaire no doubt misses both the larger picture and several pressing food-policy issues. That's why I'm listing here what I believe are 10 important federal food policy issues the candidates should be discussing but aren't.

1. Raw Milk

End the FDA's foolish and destructive quarter-century crusade against raw milk farmers and sellers. As I wrote last year in a Washington Times op-ed, "Where a warning will suffice, a ban is inappropriate."

2. Government Misinformation

The federal government should immediately stop using taxpayer dollars to award grant money to cities and states that these governments in turn use to launch attacks on food producers and sellers. New York City's deceitful anti-soda ads, exposed by The New York Times earlier this year, are perhaps the best example of this practice.

3. USDA Reform

End all USDA farm subsidies—including federally subsidized crop insurance—right now. End programs promoting commodity crops. End marketing orders. Slash the agency's bloated $150-billion budget in half. Then devote a higher percentage (currently less than 5 percent of the agency's budget) to food safety. Instead of writing one-size-fits-all rules for school lunches, get out of the school lunch game entirely.

4. Food Marketing

Stop cracking down on food marketing. No logo or advertisement has ever made any person of any age obese. Last year the FTC, FDA, USDA, and CDC came up with an unconstitutional joint scheme that would have limited the rights of food producers to advertise their products, lest a child see food ads and nag his or her parents. Thankfully the agencies backed down in the face of pressure.

5. The Commerce Clause & The Tenth Amemdment

Return sovereignty over intrastate food safety (including animal slaughter) to the states. While both the FDA and USDA have power under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, neither has such authority to regulate intrastate commerce. Under the Tenth Amendment, that responsibility rests with the states.

6. Food Labeling

Open up all food labels to any and all statements that aren't demonstrably false. That would include allowing statements such as "No GMOs" on any GMO-free product. Additionally, abolish the USDA's archaic label pre-approval requirement (a requirement the FDA—which regulates four times as much food as does the USDA—does not have).

7. Alcohol

Keep working to prevent children from drinking alcohol while at the same time halting policies that treat adults like children. Lift the ban on caffeinated beers like Four Loko. Lift the ban on home distillation of spirits. And, as above, end the needless preapproval process for beer, wine, and spirits.

8. Organic Food

Organic food once meant something to those who ate it. Today it means something much less, thanks to politicized USDA regulations pertaining to organic-food labeling. The solution? Get the USDA out of the organic business entirely.

9. Food Freedom

Let people make their own food choices. Absent a narrowly defined and compelling state interest, neither the federal government nor state or local governments has authority under the Constitution to ban any food.

10. Picking Winners

Q: Should federal government policies favor large or small farmers, ranchers, grocers, restaurants, and other food businesses?

A: Neither.

In my column next week, I'll build on these ideas by presenting one idea each from 10 leading food scholars, attorneys, authors, advocates, and others about important food-policy issues they'd like to see discussed in the presidential campaign.