America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food for 2012

These men and women really cook

America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food for 2012
Composite by Jane Bruce

Last January we published our first annual list of America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food (2011). It's that time again. Many of last year's names appear on this year's roster, but there are some new names, too, which of course means that some of last year's are missing. Some folks moved up the ladder, as well, and some moved down. This might be because of new accomplishments (or because of What Have They Done for Us Lately?) or just because we're looking at them this year from a different angle.

Click here for America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food for 2012.

Power is juice — the ability to make things happen. It's authority, strength, muscle. It's what starts trends, pulls strings, rewrites rules, and shifts paradigms. In the food world, the people with power are the ones who affect what and how and where and why we eat, or could if they wanted to. They're the agribusiness moguls who decide — either responding to market demand or creating it — what crops are planted and how they're harvested and sold. They're the representatives of major food processing and distribution concerns and retail food outlets, which is to say the people who actually put food on our tables. They're the scolds and nannies — and admirable consumer advocates — who tell us what we should and shouldn't eat and why, sometimes upending whole industries in the process; the key figures in the governmental agencies concerned with the economics and the safety of our food supply; the media stars and public figures who sway our food opinions and stimulate our appetites; the chefs and restaurateurs who introduce us to new raw materials, new dishes, new culinary notions, and establish the standards we come to expect for the preparation and the serving of food. They're the journalists, online or on television or even still sometimes in print, who report on all of the above…

Any catalogue of powerful people — and certainly any ranking of them in order of clout — is bound to be highly subjective, of course. That doesn't mean that it has to be arbitrary. We collaborated to assemble an initial list, then added and subtracted, fine-tuned and developed. We did extensive research and had endless discussions and occasionally strenuous debates. One thing that was clear from the beginning was that the most influential figures in the field weren't always the best-known, and that CEOs could wield more might than culinary celebrities. 

Our ultimate criterion was simply this: Is each person on our list capable, whether by dint of corporate station, media access, moral authority, or sheer personality, of substantially changing, improving, and/or degrading the quality and variety of the American diet or the way we think about it? If so, how absolute is the power he or she can bring to bear?

We've certainly included some high-profile individuals — the ever-ubiquitous Wolfgang Puck (#13), who was arguably our first genuine modern-day food star; arbiter of Top-Chef-ness Tom Colicchio (#38); TV physician Dr. (Mehmet) Oz (#40); and first lady and healthy-eating advocate Michelle Obama (#8), to name but four — but they are interleafed with less familiar personalities. Among these are Jim Skinner (#6), who runs a little fast-food chain called McDonald's; Hugh Grant (#9) — no, not that Hugh Grant — who's the big boss at the controversial Monsanto company, purveyors extraordinaire of genetically modified seeds; Dawn Sweeney (#34), president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association (NRA); and Bill Marler (#46), food safety advocate and a personal injury lawyer who specializes in defending people who contract foodborne illnesses at the hands of large concerns.

In a number of cases, it must be admitted, power accrues not to an individual so much as to the company or agency or advocacy group he or she commands. Anyone who won the top spot at Monsanto or the NRA would make our list. Patricia Woertz (#10) wields swack because she's chairman and CEO of the massive agribusiness firm Archer Daniels Midland, and Susan Ungaro (#39) because she heads up the James Beard Foundation. In the case of The New York Times restaurant critic (#14), without doubt the most influential reviewer of that kind in the country, we've left out the name of the current occupier of the position, both because he has hardly begun in the job and because he theoretically strives for anonymity. Anyway, you could put Homer Simpson in the slot and it would still be a power post.

It should be stressed that a high ranking on our list of the 50 most powerful food folk in America doesn't necessarily imply approval. Putting the president of Subway above the director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium doesn't mean we think assembling foot-long chipotle chicken and cheese sandwiches is a nobler pursuit than monitoring and encouraging sustainable fisheries — just that more Americans (sad to say) are probably affected by the former than the latter.

Choosing who to include and who to omit was difficult; putting them in order of importance was a bear. We're confident that we've come up with a pretty good list, though. What do you think? Did we omit anybody obvious, or give undue prominence to some food folk or not enough to others? Check out the slideshow and leave a comment to let us know.

50. Will Allen, Founder and CEO, Growing Power

49. Martha Stewart, Author, Publisher, TV Personality

48. Mark Bittman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times

47. Danny Meyer, Restaurateur

46. Bill Marler, Foodborne Illness Lawyer and Attorney

45. Arturo Rodriguez, President, United Farm Workers

44. Elise Bauer, Blogger, SimplyRecipes.com

43. Dan Barber, Chef

42. Ingrid Newkirk, President and Co-Founder, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

41. Josh Viertel, President, Slow Food USA

40. Dr. Mehmet Oz, Host of The Dr. Oz Show

39. Susan Ungaro, President, The James Beard Foundation

38. Tom Colicchio, Chef-Restaurateur and TV Personality

37. Jane Goldman, Vice President and General Manager, CHOW

36. Michael Pollan, Author

35. Vicki B. Escarra, President and CEO, Feeding America

34. Dawn Sweeney, President and CEO, National Restaurant Association

33. José Andrés, Chef-Restaurateur

32. Dana Cowin, Editor-in-Chief, Food & Wine

31. Thomas Keller, Chef-Restaurateur

30. David Dillon, Chairman and CEO, The Kroger Co.

29. Anthony Bourdain, Author and TV Host

28. Bill Shore, Founder and CEO, Share Our Strength

27. David A. DeLorenzo, President and CEO, Dole Food Company

26. Alice Waters, Chef–Restaurateur and Founder and Director, The Edible Schoolyard

25. Catherine M. Cassidy, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief, Taste of Home Media Group

24. Grant Achatz, Chef-Restaurateur

23. Dan Bane, Chairman and CEO, Trader Joe’s

22. Mario Batali, Chef-Restaurateur, and TV Personality

21. John Mackey, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Whole Foods

20. Julie Packard, Executive Director and Vice Chairman, Monterey Bay Aquarium

19. Bill J. DeLaney, President and CEO, Sysco

18. Irene Rosenfeld, CEO, Kraft Foods Snacks Division

17. Fred DeLuca, Co-Founder and CEO, Subway

16. David Kirchoff, CEO, Weight Watchers International

15. Craig Jelinek, CEO, Costco

14. The New York Times Food Critic

13. Wolfgang Puck, Chef-Restaurateur

12. Donnie Smith, President and CEO, Tyson

11. Gregory Page, Chairman and CEO, Cargill

10. Patricia Woertz, Chairman, President, and CEO,  Archer Daniels Midland

9. Hugh Grant, Chairman, President, and CEO, The Monsanto Company

8. Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States and Dietary Activist

7. Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

6. Jim Skinner, Vice Chairman and CEO, McDonald’s

5. Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo.

4. Mike Duke, President and CEO, Walmart

3. Jeremy Stoppelman, Co-Founder and CEO, Yelp

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

1. Brooke Johnson, President, Food Network


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