Who Most Influences the Food We Eat?

Published on: 15:11PM Feb 24, 2011

The recipe-sharing, restaurant-reviewing, and food-loving website The Daily Meal issued an interesting list last month: the 50 Most Powerful People in Food.  A nigh-impossible task to judge, after all, but provocative not just in its approach, but in its conclusions.

Before I get to those, first, a review of how the Daily Meal vetted its list.  This is the web site’s bottom line:

Our ultimate criterion was simply this: Can this person, whether by dint of corporate position, media access, moral authority, or sheer personality, substantially change, improve, and/or degrade the quality and variety of the American diet or the way we think about it? 

So, given such a broad definition of what constitutes “powerful,” who’s on first?  Here’s the top 10:

1.         You

2.         Tom Vilsack, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture

3.         Hugh Grant, President and CEO, Monsanto Company

4.         Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States

5.         Steve Jobs, Co-Founder and CEO, Apple

6.         Alice Waters, Chef-Restaurateur and Activist

7.         Brooke Johnson, President, Food Network

8.         Mike Duke, President and CEO, Walmart

9.         Sam Sifton, Restaurant Critic, New York Times

10.       Jim Skinner, President and CEO, McDonald's Corporation

First of all, citing each of us as the most powerful is a cop-out.  Yes, each of us is ultimately responsible for what we put in our mouths.  But that is (or should be) a given.  Otherwise, I must say I agree with most of these choices.  Both Vilsack and Obama have enormous influence and the ability to exercise the power of the federal government, although Michelle Obama’s is more the power of the bully pulpit; Vilsack’s power is the real deal.  But not him personally, as much as the power of the office.

I’m not certain I buy that Grant is #3, since most of what Monsanto does is make it easier to grow grains and crops that are fed to livestock, not people.  In the big picture, corporate agribusiness companies are influential, but I happen to believe that Walmart and McDonalds (and thus their CEOs) wield a great deal more influence in the American diet than Hugh Grant, or his peer group.

The Jobs choice is an interesting one; certainly the rapid rise of portable information technology can influence both our dining and supermarket shopping habits, but I don’t think he and Apple are “ends” for purposes of this list; they are one means to the end, meaning they help people make decisions, but I don’t see their influence over the choices people make.  There’s not yet an app for that.

The rest of the top 50 is more of the likeliest suspects:  celebrity chefs/restaurateurs like Wolfgang Puck, Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart; food writers like Michael Pollan and Barry Estabrook; and more corporate CEOs like Indra Nooyi of Pepsi, and Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft.  Oprah’s on the list, since she certainly is a taste-maker, but many of the others are nowhere near household names.

Often, when there’s a debate about this type of power, it’s assumed that the power is negative or nefarious.  Certainly, that’s the implication with the naming of some of these people.  What about those who make food safer, or more nutritious, or more affordable?  And more to the point:  if the #1 most powerful food person is every man (and woman) who eats, where is the farmer in all of this, without whom there is nothing to cook, prepare or blog about?