If the State of the Union address in January 2013 were dedicated solely to the state of the food and beverageindustry, the incoming president would surely touch on the obesity crisis, food deserts and the continuing battles over school lunches and the size of soft drinks. He would discuss the drought-ravaged crops of 2012 and what they mean for farm policy, ethanol quotas and food prices. He would discuss regulations – needed or not needed – in regard to food safety, labeling of genetically modified foods (GMOs) and health claims. Maybe even overarching business issues such as worker safety, health care, the tax code, trade policy and the economic pressures that food companies face.
While Mitt Romney's "State of the Food Union" speech and calls to action would surely differ from Barack Obama's, the question is how much it will matter who's in charge as the rubber of political reality hits the road in the next four years.
Some food industry leaders say the performance of the Obama administration over the past term reveals stark differences in how he would continue to lead versus a Romney administration. But they acknowledge continued gridlock in Washington and struggles related to the economy that could water down efforts of either commander in chief. And they point to developments at the state and local levels that could be just as challenging – and perhaps even more influential – than pronouncements from the White House.
Food is increasingly political
When asked about differences between Romney and Obama, industry leaders note there clearly has been a trend toward more restriction on what food and beverage companies can do and say under Obama, and there might be less regulation and less pressure under Romney.
"Certainly on the regulatory front it will make a difference if Obama or Romney is in office," says Connie Tipton, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. "This administration – as well-intentioned as it is on diet and obesity – is prone to take a prescriptive approach, which ends up limiting choice.
"There are a lot of things in the pipeline that could be affected, such as front-of-pack labeling and revision of the nutrition facts panel," she continues. "We don't know for sure where Romney would be on some of these issues, but it's a pretty sure bet that his administration would be less prescriptive."
"I've always been an advocate of less government," says Paul Kruse, president and CEO of Blue Bell Creameries, a Brenham, Texas, maker of ice cream. "I think the two nominees are very far apart in that respect."
Sue Pittman, who heads the Food & Nutrition Affairs Practice at FoodMinds LLC, agrees that regulators have weighed heavily on food and beveragecompanies in the past four years, but notes that she's seen an evolution in the Obama approach.
"The administration appears more aware of the issues the food industry faces. We see that even in Mrs. Obama's tone when she speaks," Pittman says, referring to the leadership role Michelle Obama has attained in discussing relevant food issues.
While what the First Lady says in the White House garden may seem a far stretch from what takes place down the road at the FDA or USDA, Pittman says that the language used in the "whole, fresh, local" efforts has a definite effect on policy discussions. And the end result is an assault on processed foods.
Pittman believes this broader food movement – particularly in terms of the engagement of local communities – has enough momentum that even under a Republican president the pressure toward more regulation would not subside entirely. She points to the proliferation of local food policy councils, attempts to tax soft drinks and GMO labeling ballot initiatives.
"I think with a Republican White House we would see more activity at the state level," she says. "There's so much momentum now in the states where the goal is to advocate for healthier food environments at the local level. That's not going to stop."
The New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman recently lamented that this local food movement was, in fact, not nearly strong enough and needed to be energized significantly to push for national policy changes.
"When Obama has been pressured on issues like gay rights, immigration and the Keystone XL pipeline, he's responded positively," Bittman wrote in an August column. "But he hasn't been pushed on food, and as a result has not followed up on campaign promises like his vow to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, nor has he used his bully pulpit to try to protect SNAP (food stamps) from the ravages of Congress. Since there isn't a real food movement — yet! — progressives haven't made Obama do much."
Waning personal responsibility
It does appear, however, that consumers consider food issues to be politically relevant, and are looking to food companies and the government to do more to protect their health and prevent obesity.
A survey conducted by FoodMinds, "Food Temperance in America," tracks opinions on food policy topics among registered voters and opinion leader shoppers (a group of politically aware and socially active consumers). A key finding from the most recent survey conducted this spring demonstrates the political divide: 75 percent of Democrats think more time should be spent on food policy topics within presidential debates and in overall discussions about government policies, while only 39 percent of Republicans think so.
What's more, an increasing number of these opinion leader shoppers think Americans need support from their public institutions and the marketplace in their personal battle against obesity. Most (56 percent) said they believe that the individual holds primary responsibility for making healthy choices to prevent obesity. But the flip-side is that 44 percent believe that this primary responsibility lies somewhere else – not with the individual. Most startling, this is a 9-point increase over two years ago – when only 33 percent of respondents felt this way.