How the Presidential Election Will Impact Food Freedom in America

10 experts weigh in on federal food policies Obama and Romney should address.


Last week I focused in this column on what I consider to be ten important federal food-policy issues the presidential candidates should be discussing but have ignored until now. My list includes ending the FDA's campaign against raw milk, the need for widespread reform of the USDA, a call to loosen restrictions on adults' use of alcohol, acknowledging the importance of food freedom, and more.

As I noted last week, my goal for this week's follow-up column would be to go beyond my own 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 and implemented in the future.

In short, what do others whose ideas I respect believe are key food-policy issues?

At least some of the names among the 10 respondents on the list below will be familiar to regular readers of Reason (Walter Olson, Joel Salatin). Others, though, represent important organizations, constituencies, and ideas you may not yet have come into contact with in these pages.

One strand I think you'll find running through the responses of this diverse group of experts below is that our nation's food policies cannot and should not continue to consist of a combination of high subsidies and tight regulations that, in tandem, promote the primacy of some food choices over others.

1. Don Carr

Last year taxpayers gave crop insurance subsidies of at least $1 million apiece to 26 highly profitable mega-farms. U.S. crop insurance subsidies encourage farmers to make risky planting and land use decisions that wind up polluting our water with fertilizers and pesticides and causing valuable soil to blow away. And since field run-off is unregulated at the federal level, our current tools in fighting this pollution are limited.

If Americans believe that clean water and healthy soil are critical to our future, then it's only logical to limit taxpayer support to activities that undermine them. We should also ask crop insurance subsidy recipients to engage in minimal conservation measures in exchange for a safety net that no other business enjoys.

Don Carr is a senior advisor with the Environmental Working Group.

2. Jason Foscolo

In general, I would like to see the candidates address the disproportionate effect regulation has on small agricultural businesses. My favorite example of this has to be the USDA's label pre-approval requirements for breed-specific marketing claims for meat. Farmers looking to market a niche-breed of livestock have to substantiate their label claims before they can legally market their products as, say, "Berkshire" or "Angus." This rule creates a real advantage for large producers at the expense of innovators. Oscar Meyer has zero need for breed-marketing strategies, but smaller producers need any hook they can get to grab their customer.

Jason Foscolo is an agricultural and food law attorney who represents artisan food producers and farmers in New York and elsewhere.

3. Pete Kennedy

The most important policy reform at the federal level would be to start repealing provisions of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FDA regulates eighty percent of the food supply in the U.S.; implementing the FSMA will burden many producers who will not be able to afford the cost of compliance. The FSMA emphasizes process (e.g., requirements such as hazard analysis and critical control points, HACCP plans) rather than results (e.g., a clean plant). FDA will be able to charge reinspection fees so they will have significant incentive to find violations. Further, the FSMA gives FDA more power to regulate interstate commerce in violation of the tenth amendment as well as subjecting their enforcement actions to less judicial scrutiny. Provisions like the ones on reinspection fees and administrative detention (i.e., detaining food without court order if FDA merely has "reason to believe" [it] is adulterated or misbranded) are good places to start the overhaul.

Pete Kennedy is president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

4. Rich Killingsworth

This nation is experiencing a shift in health promotion practice from choice-based approaches that focus on personal responsibility to regulatory-based approaches that support the concept that behavior and the systems that enabled it should be controlled and enforced. This stark paradigm shift is beginning to erode the traditional civic values of transparency, inclusion, and impartial collaboration that were historically essential in finding common ground and mutually beneficial solutions in community-building efforts. As a result, we now see polarizing agendas being prosecuted under the auspices that it is good for our health and pocket book. Recently, the beverage industry has been confronted with significant challenges in its attempt to provide consumers with beverage choices. The posture that the beverage industry and others assume will be critically important–not only to a free marketplace, but also to consumers and the core values of individual liberty and freedom.

Richard E. Killingsworth is senior advisor with the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.

5. Rachel Laudan

I'd love to see the government get out of regulating organic food labeling. By playing on a false dichotomy between natural and artificial pesticides and fertilizers, proponent[s] of organic food have been able to market it as the safe, healthy and tasty option. These claims have been refuted. Yet continued government involvement diverts attention from real issues of food safety, works against small farmers who cannot afford the expensive certification process, and puts wind in the sails of a romantic, nostalgic agrarian movement that turns its back on the science and technology essential to farming and the food industry.

Rachel Laudan, Ph.D., is a historian and is a visiting scholar with the Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

6. Jayson Lusk

The government-funded school lunch program is a bureaucratic nightmare that attempts to do too much: prop up agricultural prices, provide calories to poor under-nourished children, slim the waistlines of the obese, and it forces schools to follow complex rules subject to annual audit. The government subsidizes the price of foods sold from selected distributors and it re-reimburses schools for certain types of students. Why not take these same funds and provide block-grants to schools and let local school boards make their own decisions outside the complex government formula system? We allow charter schools. Why not charter lunchrooms?

Jayson Lusk, Ph.D. is a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University.

7. Walter Olson

Thanks to federal incentives, it was revealed recently, New York's education department at one point had forty school lunch specialists compared with one specialist in science education. The lunches kept getting worse, too, or so I observed as a New York public school parent. Now they're moving on to federally funded school breakfast, weekend, and summer feeding. We can't all afford to escape these dismal mandates by fleeing to private school, but as Baylen has pointed out, most of us can afford to pack bag and box lunches. Policy recommendation? Get ready to fight the inevitable attempts to restrict food sent from home. 

Walter Olson is senior fellow at the Cato Institute and blogs at Overlawyered.com.

8. Joel Salatin

The single issue most pressing is a Food Emancipation Proclamation allowing every American sovereignty over their own internal community of 3 trillion [microbes]. Each person is responsible for this internal community. To place any other entity responsible is to enslave each person's body to another's ownership. President Obama, being black, and Mitt Romney, being pro-life, would bring fascinating perceptions to this issue. When we talk about rights, like [a] right to gun ownership or right to health care, what about the right of a person to determine how to feed his/her community of beings that ultimately determines the life fitness for the person to participate in elections and political discourse?

Joel Salatin is a farmer, author, and local food advocate.

9. Liz Williams

The government has trained consumers to read labels and to expect certain information on packaging. Companies should be allowed to inform the public through labeling if they produce a product that either contains something that the company believes that consumers want or does not contain something that consumers may want to avoid. If the claim is truthful, claiming that jelly contains no high fructose corn syrup should be no different legally than claiming that milk contains no rBST. A free-market policy would favor voluntary labeling–disclosing truthful information, giving consumers the ability to make an informed choice.

Liz Williams is president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

10. J. Justin Wilson

Although both candidates are taking about health care reform in broad terms, there is one detail that I think warrants closer examination.

As we move closer to a single-payer health care system, the paternalistic argument that the government has a responsibility to "protect us from ourselves" has been replaced with an argument for cost-cutting. Now, many state and local policy makers are justifying greater regulation of the foods we eat and drink—like taxing soda, zoning fast food restaurants, or slapping warning labels on packaged foods—under the auspices of saving the health care system billions of dollars they attribute to obesity-related medical expenses—as if they actually cared about saving taxpayers money.

The trouble is that obesity—or the behaviors that contribute to it—is not a unique driver of health care costs.

J. Justin Wilson is senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.