WASHINGTON — Will President-elect Donald Trump remake school lunches into his fast-food favorites of burgers and fried chicken?
Children grumbling about healthier school meal rules championed by first lady Michelle Obama may have reason to cheer Trump’s election as the billionaire businessman is a proud patron of Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s while promising to curb federal regulations.
The Obama administration has made healthier, safer and better labeled food a priority in the last eight years, significantly raising the profile of food policy and sometimes drawing the ire of Republicans, farmers and the food industry. The first lady made reducing childhood obesity one of her signature issues through her “Let’s Move” campaign.
In addition to the healthier school meal rules, the administration ushered a sweeping food safety law through Congress, pushed through several new food labeling regulations, started to phase out trans fats, added calorie labels to menus and suggested new limits on sodium in packaged foods. The White House has also fended off efforts in the Republican Congress to trim the nation’s food stamp program.
“Food advocates are already nostalgic for the Obama era and will be playing defense for the next four years,” says Sam Kass, a former White House senior adviser on nutrition and personal chef for the Obamas.
A look at some of the food regulations that could be scrapped — or tweaked — in the new administration:
MAKING SCHOOL MEALS GREAT AGAIN
Trump himself hasn’t weighed in on school meal regulations. But Republicans, school nutrition directors and some in the food industry have balked at parts of the administration’s rules that set stricter fat, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. While many students have now gotten used to the healthier foods, some schools still complain that they are costly and that it’s difficult to meet the standards.
“I would be very surprised if we don’t see some major changes on the school lunch program” and some other food issues, said Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees Agriculture Department spending.
Aderholt, who sits on Trump’s agriculture advisory committee, says the Obama administration’s approach was “activist driven” and people who voted for Trump are looking for a more common-sense approach.
One of many names that have been floated as a possible agriculture secretary is Sid Miller, the Texas Agriculture Commissioner who repealed a state ban on deep fryers and soda machines at schools. Miller recently got in trouble when he used a profanity on Twitter to describe Democrat Hillary Clinton; he blamed a staffer and the tweet was deleted.
THE FOOD POLICE
In September, the Trump campaign pitched rolling back food safety regulations in a fact sheet, arguing they are burdensome to farmers and criticizing increased inspections of food manufacturing facilities as “overkill.” The sheet referred to the “food police” at the Food and Drug Administration. The campaign later deleted the proposal from its website.
Congress passed new food safety regulations in 2010, a year after a salmonella outbreak linked to a Georgia peanut company killed nine people. Michael Taylor, former FDA deputy commissioner for foods who oversaw the food safety rules, says it wouldn’t be popular with consumers to roll them back.
“Consumers are only getting more focused on safety, health and wellness,” Taylor says.
Trump himself is a self-professed germaphobe who prefers eating at fast-food restaurants because he believes they have higher food safety standards.
Congressional Republicans have been examining food stamps since the program’s cost grew to almost $80 billion annually after the recession. Participation and costs have dipped since its 2013 high, but conservatives have suggested tightening eligibility standards or increasing work requirements. House Speaker Paul Ryan has for years championed an overhaul to the program.
Democrats in the Senate have consistently objected to any changes to the program, and will still wield influence. But they won’t have the backing of a Democratic White House.
OTHER FOOD POLICY
Many other laws are either already in place or close to it, including a revised “nutrition facts” panel on the back of food packages, with a new line breaking out added sugars, a labeling law for genetically modified foods and calorie labeling on restaurant and supermarket menus.
In many cases, the rules are a result of compromise with industry. Kass says that pulling back may just create more cost and uncertainty for businesses.
“Unwinding things is really hard, especially when most of them have been implemented and industry has moved on,” Kass says.
He predicts most of the regulations will stay, but that there will be little additional progress. Ongoing administration efforts to reduce sodium in food and antibiotics in meat could be casualties.
Margo Wootan, a lobbyist on nutrition issues for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says advocates will continue to be aggressive at the state and local levels, hoping change will bubble up.
“The public is more interested than ever in nutrition and will continue to press companies,” she says.
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