This edition of Influence Feed ranks the most highly discussed topics from the past six months as well as recent insight from the top influencers in food and agriculture. GMO labeling took the spotlight, primarily following congressional debates about state and national labeling rules. Food safety grew in volume due to reports about the safety of organic foods as well as an E. coli outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill. Influencers also addressed the stewardship of farmland resources in the face of climate change and antibiotic use for food animals.
Additionally, this edition covers recent influencer discussions regarding dietary guidelines, Chipotle’s food safety issues, corporate commitments to cage-free eggs and country of origin labeling.
Top Five Most-discussed Topics in the Second Half of 2015
On July 23, the House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would preempt state GMO labeling laws and create a voluntary label under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Industry groups lauded the bill, while activist groups dissented. In response, actress Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on Capitol Hill along with four senators in an Aug. 5 effort in support of a mandatory GMO labeling bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Although neither bill progressed in the Senate, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced its SmartLabel initiative on Dec. 2. The SmartLabel entails quick-response (QR) codes on product labels that provide consumers with ingredient information when scanned.
Lastly, on Nov. 19, the FDA also released draft guidances for voluntary labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered animals or plants in conjunction with its approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon — a fish genetically engineered to grow faster and more efficiently than standard Atlantic salmon. While several activist groups protested the FDA’s decision to not require labeling for GMO ingredients, Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Gregory Jaffe commended the rigor of the salmon’s approval process.
In September, the USDA reported (PDF) a 72% increase in sales of organic foods since 2008. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition touted the growth as a sign of health. Meanwhile, media outlets highlighted pinched supplies of non-GMO and organic foods.
On Aug. 20, New York Times food writer Stephanie Strom covered a Stericycle report that found (PDF) recalls of organic foods increased at a higher rate than the expansion of organic sales. Bill Gates commented: “Food safety should not be about the process. It should be about the product.”
3. Food Safety
Foodborne illness outbreaks tied to Chipotle led influencer discussions of food safety throughout the fourth quarter. On. Nov. 1, the chain closed locations in Washington and Oregon after it was notified of an outbreak of E. coli. The CDC’s tally of those affected by the outbreak later expanded to nine states and 53 people. An unrelated norovirus outbreak in Boston on Dec. 9 added further criticism.
In a July 14 investigative report, Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich criticized the Obama administration for failing to fund the FDA for its 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). On Aug. 31, the FDA released its Preventive Controls for Human Food and Animal Food — the first two of seven parts of the FSMA regulation — and followed up with standards for produce growers, food importers and accreditation of third-party food safety auditors on Nov. 13. The Dec. 18 omnibus spending bill granted a large increase in funding to the agency.
4. Farm Stewardship
On Oct. 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued a nationwide stay (PDF) on the rule defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Environmental influencers remained subdued, while agriculturalists celebrated. The stay is temporary, and invested parties, such as the National Cattlemen’s Been Association, await further developments in what looks to be a protracted legal battle.
In anticipation of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) — held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 — the White House launched its American Business Act on Climate Pledge on July 27. Thirteen major companies (including Cargill, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Wal-Mart) pledged to reduce nearly 6 billion tons of carbon by the year 2030. During the conference, the USDA released (PDF) a report on food security, about which Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated: “Never before has agriculture faced challenges of this magnitude. … This will not be an easy task.”
On Oct. 20, Subway announced (PDF) a tiered plan to source meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics. Despite playing a role in the coalition of groups that pressured Subway, U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) questioned the extent of the announcement: “The PIRG is not calling for a total ban on antibiotics, which are at times necessary to treat sick animals. What the group seeks to eliminate is the routine overuse of antibiotics.”
On Oct. 10, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB-27, a law that largely mirrors the Veterinary Feed Directive. The California bill differs in that it is not voluntary and stipulates that a veterinarian may use antibiotics only when there is evidence that an animal has been exposed to a disease. Influencers noted the lack of objections from industry groups. Indeed, National Pork Producers Council Liz Wagstrom confirmed, “What’s going to be interesting for me to see is how they write the rules. If you look at what the bill actually says … it’s a good thing.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Nov. 16 to 20 World Antibiotics Awareness Week. On Nov. 16, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report that asserted “the indiscriminate use of antibiotics without a prescription or the input of a veterinarian puts the health of children at risk.” Animal Health Institute (AHI) responded that the report “fails to recognize significant changes being made in the way antibiotics are used in food animals.”
Recent Influencer Activity
Dietary Guidelines: The USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans on Jan. 7. Aside from adding new limits on “added sugars” and removing limits on cholesterol, the guidelines remain largely unchanged from previous editions. Activist groups, such as Friends of the Earth, protested the lack of advice to decrease meat intake, as recommended by an advisory council last February (covered in Influence Feed “Diet, Deregulation and Drones”), while many agriculture industry groups applauded this decision. Upset by the politics of the process, Washington Post writer Tamar Haspel and NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle proposed their own guidelines: “We do know that plants are good, and we do know that junk foods aren’t, but in between is an awful lot of uncertainty. So, eat more plants, eat less junk, and eat that in-between stuff moderately. That is exactly the advice science demands.”
Chipotle Food Safety: Chipotle’s woes — a dominant influencer story in the fourth quarter of 2015 — remained in the headlines into the new year. The issue was worsened by a Jan. 6 subpoena as part of a federal criminal investigation examining a norovirus outbreak this summer at a Simi Valley, California, restaurant. In a widely shared piece, food safety attorney Bill Marler published 12 notes of advice in the voice of Chipotle Co-CEO Steve Ells, saying: “It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the ‘integrity’ of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.”
Cage-free Eggs: In the past several weeks, influencers commented on a growing trend of foodservice companies announcing plans to source cage-free eggs. NPR: The Salt’s Eliza Barclay observed, “With the exception of Costco, there are no grocery retailers: no Target, no Safeway, no Walmart. … It may only be a matter of time until retailers are no longer the eggception to the rule.” The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) President Wayne Pacelle celebrated: “I don’t quite know when we’ll see the last battery cage in operation, but 2015 was certainly the year when we knew that outcome became inevitable.” In The Guardian, United Egg Producers President Chad Gregory warned, “Choices are being taken away from consumers by animal rights groups like [HSUS]. You are increasing the cost of a high quality protein significantly, sometimes doubling or tripling it.”
COOL: On Dec. 18, President Obama signed an omnibus spending bill that, among other things, repealed country of origin labeling (COOL) for beef and pork products. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) reiterated the threat of WTO-approved tariffs: “It doesn’t matter if you support COOL or if you oppose COOL. You cannot ignore the fact that retaliation is imminent and that we must avoid it.” North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter, and other industry leaders (login required), echoed the sentiment: “This trade dispute’s tentacles extend far beyond agriculture and it’s time to put an end to this costly trade barrier. The marketplace, with consumers as the drivers, should determine what labeling is meaningful and should appear on meat products — not protectionists who fear free and unfettered trade.”