This is our third annual list of America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food. 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, based on research that we carried on all year, then added and subtracted, fine-tuned and developed. In deciding who stayed on the list and where, we 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?
Almost 80 percent of our honorees were on last year's roster, but there are some new names, too — either fresh blood in charge of the same mighty organizations we included last year or entirely new entries. Some of the returnees moved up the ladder 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.
We've certainly included some high-profile individuals — first lady and dietary advocate Michelle Obama (#24); Chez Panisse founder and director of the admirable Edible Schoolyard Project Alice Waters (#30); irrepressible chef–restaurateur and TV personality Mario Batali (#25); prolific food writer and New York Times food politics columnist Mark Bittman (#39), to name but four — but they are interleafed with less familiar personalities. Among these are Donald Thompson (#7), who runs a little fast-food chain called McDonald's; Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods with the FDA (#3); Steve Spinner, whose United Natural Foods, Inc. stocks the shelves at Whole Foods and hundreds of other right-thinking food outlets (#17); Kevin Systrom, who co-founded Instagram and changed the way we (literally) look at food (#20); and Bill Marler (#48), a leading 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 (Hugh Grant, #2) or the National Restaurant Association (Dawn Sweeney, #31) would make our list, as would whoever holds the restaurant reviewer's chair at The New York Times (Pete Wells, #14).
It should be stressed that a high ranking on our list of the 50 mightiest food folk in America doesn't necessarily imply approval. Do we believe that the president and CEO of Wal-Mart (Mike Duke, #5) is a more admirable food world figure than, say, José Andrés (#18) or Thomas Keller (#40)? Of course not. It's just that the food choices of more Americans (sad to say) are undoubtedly affected by Duke than by those two excellent and influential chefs.
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.