Is the Food Industry Getting the Better of the Obamas when it comes to Food Policy?

Senator Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, combined with a twenty-seat Democratic majority in the United States Senate, and Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives, sent shivers down the spine of many food industry advocates.

In short order, their instincts were confirmed as the Obama Administration quickly launched an expansive regulatory assault against food companies.

First, it was front-of-pack nutrition labeling. Then came soda taxes and menu labeling. Attempts to further tighten restrictions on food advertising on children’s and family television shows came next. Then it was on to caffeine, partially hydrogenated oils, Nutrition Facts Panel reform and a draconian overhaul of the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines nutrition advice. The Obama FDA also took a bite out of industry by criticizing the way food companies used the agency’s Generally Recognized as Safe process, a mainstay of the food safety system since 1958.

And lets not forget the bully pulpit, as the President, First Lady and a host of Administration appointees took to the press to publicly demonize food companies and restaurants at every turn, blaming them for obesity and host of health problems.

Industry leapt into action, seeking to dampen flash points between policymakers and food companies for the sake of consumer trust in their companies and brands.

Nearly six and a half years into the Obama presidency, which side is winning the food policy battle between the Administration and the food industry? Let’s take a look:

  1. The food industry was able to block the Administration’s attempt to initiate a national soda tax to help pay for the Affordable Care Act.
  2. Industry’s voluntary Facts Up Front front-of-pack nutrition labeling initiative has put an end to White House and FDA threats to put a mandatory “traffic light” front of pack nutrition labeling scheme in place.
  3. The Federal Trade Commission’s Intergovernmental Working Group effort to ban and restrict food advertising on family and children’s television shows was thwarted by Congress at the request of food companies.
  4. Industry’s promise to voluntarily provide FDA with additional data has blunted the agency’s interest in reforming its widely criticized Generally Recognized as Safe process.

Of course, the Obama Administration has posted victories along the way. It has banned trans fat from the food supply, mandated calorie labeling on restaurant menus and won the fight to change the nutritional content of food served in schools.

In addition, there are also several proposed regulations in the works such as reform of the Nutrition Facts Panel and the development of the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines that are decidedly anti-industry in their composition. These could potentially be big wins for the White House if it gets what it wants.

However, industry’s worst fears – such as a frightening front of pack nutrition symbol, taxes, bans on food advertising, mandatory sodium restrictions, restrictions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, etc. have been stymied by industry.

Certainly, Republican control of both chambers of Congress since 2014 is aiding industry efforts to curtail the Obama food policy agenda.

It may be too early to declare an outright winner between the two antagonists, because the results of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the Nutrition Facts Panel reform could tip the scale decisively to one side or the other. However, if the food industry, with the help of Congress, turns back the worst sections of these two regulatory efforts, there is a strong case to be made that food companies got the better of an Administration bent on using its regulatory authority to grind them to a pulp as their predecessors did with tobacco.

Why, you might ask, have these companies been so successful in fending off an aggressive and popular president? The short answer is simple – when food companies stand united, as one voice, and aim their intellectual firepower and resources at a specific target, they usually hit the bulls eye.

That has certainly been a lesson learned the hard way by the President and First Lady, along with their loyalists like Sam Kass and Peggy Hamburg in recent years.

Sean McBride, Founder of DSM Strategic Communications, is former Executive Vice President of Communications & Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and former Director of Communications the American Beverage Association.