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Food is power, or at least an instrument of power — economic, political, moral. Those who control our food supply control us, for better or worse. They decide, to a greater extent than we imagine or would like, what and how we eat — if we eat, in extreme cases. Who are these people? Who are the most powerful people in the American food world?
In 2011, we attempted to answer this question for the first time. We're still at it; this is our fifth annual ranking of The 50 Most Powerful People in Food.
When we talk about power, in this context, we're talking about the ability to make things happen, rewrite the rules, shift the paradigms, change the conversation. We're talking about power that is governmental, commercial, and sometimes inspirational. The men and women who wield this power till many fields; they're agribusiness moguls, CEOs of major food processing and distribution concerns and retail food outlets, elected or appointed officials who concern themselves with the economics and the safety of our food supply, celebrity chefs and other public figures who start trends and speak up for what they believe, and activists and journalists who try, with varying degrees of success, to improve conditions under which food is raised or processed and to influence the menus from which we select our meals.
A ranked listing of powerful people, in any arena, is subjective, of course. Power comes in too many flavors. However, that doesn't mean that it has to be arbitrary. To come up with our Most Powerful in past years, The Daily Meal editors did extensive research, reading news stories, annual statements, and editorial analyses, and consulting with experts in the various fields we cover. Then we shuffled the rankings according to strenuous and sometimes contentious editorial discussion.
This year, we attempted to bring more order to the process. Once we came up with a long initial roster, we graded each nominee on five criteria: the number of people the candidate reaches, the number of venues through which the candidate can reach people, past accomplishments, potential for future accomplishments, and proven ability to reach and influence people through their actions.
Slightly more than two-thirds of the people listed here are return visitors from previous rankings. Among the new faces are Yancey Strickler (#25), founder and CEO of Kickstarter, the crowd-source investment website that, while hardly exclusive to the culinary world, has helped bankroll everything from restaurants and food trucks to a molecular sensor that will send content breakdowns of food (and other things) to your smartphone; congressman Jim McGovern (D.-Mass.) (#27), co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus and Congressional Hunger Center and a major mover and shaker in child nutrition and hunger relief programs; Howard Schultz (#6), CEO of Starbucks, the chain that is fast exceeding the coffee market and becoming a major take-out food provider and is adding beer, wine, and snacks to many locations (and already provides us with many calories worth of energy through all those supersweet specialty drinks); Susan Neely (#4), president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, the lobbying and trade organization for the $140 billion non-alcoholic beverage industry in this country; sometimes controversial best-selling author and talk-show host Mehmet Oz (#32) — Dr. Oz to you — whose pronouncements on food and nutrition echo throughout the land; and late-night host Jimmy Fallon (#41), a genuine food-lover, who brings top chefs (and Top Chefs) into more households than Food Network does (extra points for having fried-chicken guru Questlove on board as bandleader).
As in past years, some returnees have moved up the ladder and some have moved down. This might be because of new accomplishments (or lack thereof) or just because we're considering them from a different angle this year.
As in the past, we've included some household names — television personality Rachael Ray (#12); First Lady and dietary advocate Michelle Obama and her husband (#13), the latter of whose positions on the Farm Bill, immigration, and other broad issues have great impact on our food system; Chez Panisse founder and Edible Schoolyard apostle Alice Waters (#45); and The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells (#39), to name four — but many of the names here may be less than familiar to the average reader. Among these are Jeremy Stoppelman (#10), co-founder and CEO of Yelp, the hate-it-but-can't-stop-using-it review site; Donnie Smith (#19), president and CEO of Tyson, because, well, chicken; Jack Sinclair (#2), executive vice president of the largest food retailer in the world: the grocery division of Walmart; and Fred DeLuca (#30), co-founder and CEO of Subway, the build-your-own-sandwich chain that just keeps rolling along.
Every year, when we publish this ranking, we hear from readers outraged that we would "honor" this or that person, whether a corporate honcho or a nannyish naysayer. And every year, we answer that this is not necessarily a ranking of our favorite people, or of those we consider to be most admirable. Food policies and the food choices available to us in America are all too often affected by people whose organizations or philosophies we do not find admirable in the least. They know who they are.
Here, then, are The 50 Most Powerful People in Food, 2015 edition. What do you think? Did we miss somebody that should have been here, or include somebody that doesn't really fit? Check out the slideshow and leave a comment to let us know, and head to page two for the complete ranked list.
Additional reporting by Dan Myers.