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.
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.
43. Dan Barber, Chef