President, Strategic Communications, LLC

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What does the election mean for the food industry?

Looking at last night's election from 30,000 feet presents a different long-term vision of the nation than a view from the trenches; however, one thing is certain, both views have changed.

On the national level, GOP leaders, such as U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (SC), realize, in this striking defeat, that his party is now comprised of  old, white, rich, angry men, dinosaurs. Without a massive restructuring, it may have lost the ability to elect any candidate to national office. The GOP also learned that Jim Crow voting repression efforts put Newton's law of motion into play and created an "equal and opposite reaction." I guess Rove and friends slept through that class.

A view from the trenches brings a somewhat more familiar vision. The food industry has a marvelous track record of identifying changing consumer needs, producing new products and marketing them with cutting edge technology to all consumers. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that food companies, which market to every kind of consumer, do not share any common political values with their customers.

In practical terms the question is - How fast will the folks, who work in mahogany offices, figure out the real issue is not what is on the front nutrition panel, since nobody but an RD understands it, but how quickly they can get the information on their products in Spanish, for a start? Remember, the California election ballot, for example, was printed in eight languages from American Indian to Vietnamese.

All this is good news for food industry trade associations, which can take dues dollars, form coalitions and slow down the pace of change, permitting member companies the freedom to create their own branded initiatives to address consumer health and safety issues.

Let's look at what the election may mean to just a few of the major issues facing the industry:

It is certain that FDA's budget will be cut. Absent a grand bargain on the budget, an 8.2% sequestration will cut FDA's budget by about $320 million - $205 million from the Treasury and about $115 million from industry user fees. FDA would have to cut or furlough about 1,000 staffers. Importantly, no matter how much is cut, no regulatory responsibilities will be reduced. An Agency plagued for years with having too much to do with too few resources will have to pick and choose much more carefully where it spends its time and money.

Many Agency watchers have concluded the "F" in FDA has been MIA for years. The budget cuts will make matters worse since all the major food health and safety issues are complex and controversial. Here is how I think they may break out:

Most Do
Now that POTUS has been re-elected, there is no longer any reason for OMB to hold the very expensive food safety modernization regulations, an effort that will save lives and prevent serious illnesses.

Will Have To Do Something
Front panel nutritional labeling. The question here is whether the industry's peremptory strike has enough science behind it so FDA can tinker with it rather than overhaul it. A proactive social media campaign focused on health professionals would help.

Caffeine content transparency - Yes, I know these products are diet supplements and are subject to different rules but energy drink products owned by major beverage companies voluntarily disclose caffeine content. Why not spend some political capitol and encourage FDA to require caffeine and stimulant disclosure, establishing a level competitive playing field? The industry would win major kuddos from the public health community.

Forget It
California's overwhelming rejection of Proposition 37's mandatory labeling of GMO foods should put this issue back in the freezer for the FDA. If you are an investor in the "super-sized salmon" you have my sympathies, but a huge amount of preparing the marketplace work needs to be done with health and nutrition experts before FDA needs to tackle this one. Just one footnote, except more action on this issue at the state level.

The Farm Bill - While the GOP retains control of the House, the Tea Party has been weakened. Perhaps the industry should take a fresh look at the nutrition and sugar programs and try to restore the old McGovern-Dole Agreement. And, despite personal politics, that fact is no domestic sugar producer or state (Florida is still too close to call) voted for the president. The Administration owes nothing to them and revenge is a dish best served sweet, I mean "cold."

White House, MyPlate and Dietary Guidelines - No change in policy is expected from the East Wing of the White House or the nutritional nonsense eminating from its chef. What is really interesting to me is that many in the nutrition community believe the current regulatory regimen is fatally flawed and there is a growing social media discussion about how to change it before the next round of the DG begin. Now is the time for industry to jump on board, and encourage this discussion.

Kid-Vid Advertising - Control of advertising is a fall on your sword and bleed out issue. The industry is using the old chestnut of working with the Better Business Bureau. It has hired a former high Ranking FTC staffer to run the effort, but will the industry's current positioning be able to withstand the coming onslaught of attacks, because the activist community knows this is the game for all the marbles, too? Here's another opportunity to build support through social media aimed at health professionals.

CSPI, Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman, Virginia Stallings, Rachel Johnson, FNS, maybe AND
It's November, and just as trade associations begin to draft their dues letters, the activists will be drafting their own, which will stress the need to have the resources to drive home many of their issues, since POTUS and FLOTUS are now free of political considerations. Look for an uptick in their "now is the time" rhetoric, fundraising, communications and lobbying. 

In sum, lots of challenges with opportunities to play offense and defense. Of course, this can all change if the Administration decides to make obesity prevention a cornerstone of its second term. Remember, the Obama team are now thinking about how historians will view it. So, we end up where we began, at 30,000 feet.

To talk about health professional social media efforts shoot me a note or give me a call.

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