During the Consumer Federation of America’s 40th annual National Food Policy Conference last week, virtually everyone from presenters to attendees had difficulty trying to determine a food policy agenda under the Trump Administration. While there was consensus that a number of food-related initiatives from the Obama Administration would languish, or even be rescinded, there also was agreement that it would be difficult to forecast the Trump Administration’s direction until more positions are filled at the departments, especially USDA.

This conference is a key national gathering of stakeholders from across the food policy spectrum – consumer advocates, industry representatives, and government agency officials. It typically is an effective platform to exchange information and ideas, as well as obtain a sense of what issues stakeholder groups will be targeting in the coming year.

There was acknowledgement that the budget cuts that likely will be imposed during the Trump Administration would ultimately result in fewer employees at the federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While some admitted that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) would likely be untouched because of the broad support for the law among industry groups, hope was expressed that the FDA soon would release guidance documents on some of the final rules. There also was concern expressed over whether FDA could implement FSMA effectively if the agency is subject to steep budget cuts.

A representative from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was hopeful that some initiatives from the Obama Administration would remain in place, noting that a number of companies such as Mars have been supportive of progressive causes, including sodium reduction, changes to the nutrition facts panel, and curbs on added sugars.

Given the acknowledgement that many food initiatives would stall at the federal level, it was asserted by panelists during a session focusing on local foods policy that many so-called progressive causes may find success at the state and municipal levels. Issues such as a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages have sprung up in various cities and that list likely will grow.

However, the common theme woven throughout the conference is that everyone has a "murky crystal ball" when it comes to figuring out the Trump Administration’s food policy agenda. Much of that uncertainty exists due to the lack of staffing of key positions at the various government agencies.

According to published reports, the hiring process is proceeding slowly because it is being micro-managed by President Trump himself, and White House staff. There has been speculation in Washington that the Trump Administration may not fill a number of political appointee positions at government agencies in an attempt to streamline the decision-making process, while giving the appearance of reducing the size of the government workforce. Another key question being asked by policy experts is whether the micro-managing of political appointments will translate into a micro-managing of the policy decision-making process. If so, the role of political appointees at the departments may seem to have little impact on policy direction.

The representatives from government agencies who presented at the conference provided an overview of current agency initiatives and were not in a position to reveal anything beyond that. When pressed for details on the status of certain initiatives, such as sodium reduction and changes to the nutrition facts panel, the most information they could divulge was that comments and requests are being considered.