Food, like many things during the Donald Trump era, is under attack. Here are a few of the ways:
Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue became Trump’s nominee for United States Department of Agriculture secretary on January 18, 2017, two days before his inauguration. Already it was reported by Politico that the delay in nomination was causing strife among farmers who voted for Trump. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton each made their agriculture secretary picks in December. That said, Perdue’s nomination pleases the factory farming lobby, which hopes Perdue will, like the rest of Trump’s cabinet, ease regulations on things like pollution and animal abuse.
While Perdue is well-liked by the American Farm Bureau Federation—he grew up on a farm, he has a doctorate in veterinary medicine, and he ran a fertilizer company—his torch burns mainly for factory farming, but both Politico and The Huffington Post have reported that Perdue is, at best, a “passive participant” in one of the worst salmonella outbreaks in U.S. history in 2009. In the outbreak that originated at the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, Georgia, nine people died and 700 people got sick throughout 46 states. Then, he basically hid when the state’s agriculture commissioner tried to reform a law that would require farms to report positive tests for pathogens within 24 hours.
“I never did directly meet with Sonny on this particular legislation,” former Republican state Senator John Bulloch, who was behind the bill, told Politico. “Every time we made changes, (staff) carried it to Sonny. I don’t remember that they ever came back with suggestions, changes. But if he had concerns, I know I would have heard from him.”
Did we mention Perdue would be in charge of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the division of the USDA that checks meat and poultry at factory farms and pressures them to do recalls if pathogens are found? Already FSIS has had a hiring freeze, causing delayed testing in the pathology lab. Sounds safe to us.
Perdue has also been described as a climate change denier; more on that later.
And finally, the USDA is the branch of government that deals with food stamps and other government food assistance programs. These will all surely be threatened under the Trump administration, which has a mandate to cut programs that benefit the poor.
Michelle Obama’s nutrition policy was her centerpiece. The former First Lady helped create the Partnership for a Healthier America and tons of initiatives. First there was Let’s Move!, her program to fight against childhood obesity. She got schools to serve more fruits, vegetables, and even whole grain pasta and bread. She supported and promoted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which authorized funding and set policy for all kinds of USDA programs such as WIC, the National School Lunch Program, and the School Breakfast Program. She got chefs to partner with schools and teach kids about healthier diets; she got Wal-Mart to lower prices on fruits and vegetables; she promoted working out (as in actually hitting the gym); she pushed for better food labels; and she planted an organic garden at the White House.
The list goes on…
Trump, meanwhile, is somewhere between 236 and 267 pounds, which wouldn’t be notable, except he is constantly fat-shaming people. He thinks making speeches is “exercise.” He has posted pictures on social media of his meals: a whole bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and lots of McDonald’s. He skips breakfast (or eats bacon and eggs), loves overdone steak, and munches on Doritos for a snack.
And it’s not just his personal diet that makes Trump a food nightmare: Vanity Fair described his Trump Grill as being possibly “the worst restaurant in America.” While that’s not really a nutritional evaluation, we can’t imagine Trump Grill being healthy at all.
What’s worse is that the Republican-led Congress, in collaboration with Trump, could dial back some of Michelle Obama’s good work—particularly the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which, of course, Republicans hate because it benefits poor people.
And then there’s the ridiculous stuff like the crusade representative Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) is on to make sure that “the First Lady Michelle Obama-inspired nutrition standards are revised so that school food is more edible.” We wonder if he’ll call a spade a spade, and name his bill the Unhealthy Kids Act?
Jim O’Neill is Trump’s nominee for Food and Drug Administration secretary. Not a ton is known about O’Neill other than that he’s something of a Peter Thiel lackey. Much has been written about his support for an open kidney market (“There are plenty of healthy spare kidneys walking around, unused,” he has said), his agreement with Thiel that taking young people’s blood and circulating it into old people combats aging, and his plans to deregulate the pharmaceutical industry.
Less is known about O’Neill’s stance on food, though if confirmed, he’ll be in charge of the administration that oversees food safety, additives, and supplements. One thing is known, though: O’Neill believes algae to be the future of food. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though some algae have been proven to be unsafe for human consumption.
What is more known is Trump’s stance on the FDA. He actually wants to dismantle it; one of his press releases denounced the “FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables, even dictates the nutritional value of dog food. The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperature and even what animals can roam which fields and when. It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”
So basically, he thinks making sure food is safe is “overkill.” He might revise that line of thinking when reduced regulation turns overkill into, well, kill—when people start dying from easily testable foodborne pathogens.
One of the Trump’s campaign promises was to build some kind of wall between Mexico and the United States, estimated at $20 billion, which doesn’t make sense for a bunch of reasons, but makes less sense when he expects Mexico to pay for it. Of course they’re not going to pay for it.
Instead of Mexico paying for the wall, Trump has said that he will impose a 20 percent tax on imported Mexican goods to get them to “pay” for the wall, in a roundabout way.
But this is patently absurd. First off, if he did that, Mexico would undoubtedly place a similar tariff on American goods, which support nearly a million American jobs. Secondly, imported cars and car parts, machinery, mineral fuels, and medical instruments (more than $200 billion worth of imports) would suddenly see their prices rise. This is not good for American consumers at all.
Finally, there’s food. Mexico is the second-largest supplier of agricultural products to the United States after Canada, totaling approximately $21 billion in 2015, including $9.1 billion worth of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Things we import from Mexico: avocados, tomatoes, berries, papaya, and sugar. We also imported a lot of tequila, mezcal, and nearly $2 billion worth of beer.
If the prices of those foods go up 20 percent, it could put a huge dent in the average American’s wallet.
LGBTQ Food Access
One of the executive orders, the so-called “First Amendment Defense Act,” which is predicted to come out of the White House in the coming days is the order that companies can refuse service to anyone based on their religious values.
The main cases that have challenged this (and lost), of course, are bakeries refusing to bake cakes for gay marriages. But if this executive order comes through, it will probably cause all kinds of chaos. Most Christian denominations don’t recognize gay marriage. Southern Baptists believe being gay or being transgender is a sin. If the executive order is signed, it won’t be long before restaurants in the South stop serving all people equally.
(Of course, more importantly than restaurants are the healthcare providers, landlords, and employers that will be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people if they claim religious beliefs.)
Department of Labor
Trump’s nominee for Labor secretary is Andrew Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, the company that franchises Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. If there’s a list of “unhealthiest burgers in America,” it’s rare not to find those two chains listed.
Puzder himself is a real piece of work. “[Mr. Puzder is] a man whose business record is defined by fighting against working people,” Richard L. Trumka president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. told The New York Times last year.
He’s so much against working people that he prefers robots, which are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall or an age, sex or race discrimination case,” he told Business Insider last year.
Not only that, Puzder’s restaurants had a “disturbing rate of sexual harassment,” reported The Guardian. Two-thirds of the female employees at restaurants managed by CKE said they’d experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, a figure well above industry averages.
This may not be surprising from a guy whose company’s ad features bikini-clad women eating burgers, but from a Labor Secretary? It should be shocking and unacceptable.
This might be the big one, because the EPA currently (and we’ll see how long this stays up on the site, because the Trump administration has a penchant for scrubbing climate science from government websites) states that climate change is to blame for many extra costs in the food production chain.
“For example, in 2010 and 2012, high nighttime temperatures affected corn yields across the U.S. Corn Belt, and premature budding due to a warm winter caused $220 million in losses of Michigan cherries in 2012,” the EPA’s website says.
It also says: “In 2011, exposure to high temperature events caused over $1 billion in heat-related losses to agricultural producers.” And concludes with, “Impacts to the global food supply concern the United States because food shortages can cause humanitarian crises and national security concerns. They also can increase domestic food prices.”
More than 97 percent of peer-reviewed climate science research shows human-caused climate change is already happening. Let’s contrast that with the Trump administration’s stance on climate change: it doesn’t exist.
Want proof? Sonny Perdue, the guy Trump nominated for USDA secretary, once tried to pray away a drought.
Myron Ebell, an adviser to Trump on the environment during his transition, has been called “an alarmist with ridiculous views who knows nothing about climate change” by then-U.K. Chief Scientist David King in 2005.
Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator is Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times on behalf of oil companies to attack water and clean air protections against things like mercury, arsenic, and sulfer dioxide. He has gone on record mocking the Clean Air Act and questioning why the EPA exists at all. Pruitt self-identifies as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He has also come out with the opinion that the EPA holds no authority in the regulation of greenhouse gases; thankfully, the Supreme Court disagreed with that.
For the first time ever, the National Wildlife Federation is calling on members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to reject Pruitt. And scientists are planning a March for Science on Washington.
Trump’s antiscience cabal has clearly influenced him. In the next few days, Trump is expected to sign an executive order to pull out of the Paris agreement, an ambitious treaty to combat climate change signed by 127 countries.
None of this is going to change anyone’s minds about Trump, but an increase in foodborne illness is just another issue every American is likely going to be dealing with in the future. Without the Affordable Care Act, uninsured people might not get to hospitals in time. And in the long term, climate change might wipe out agriculture in the United States as we know it. It’s a ticking time bomb. The best way to deal might be to stay informed, shop at farmer’s markets, and generally be aware of what to do if you think you have salmonella or listeria. It’s a brave new world, but healthy and safe food doesn’t seem to be an important part of it.