As antibiotic use and trade policies are seeing reform in the final year of the Obama Administration, the latter half of March brought with it an unmatched number of commitments from food companies changing their sourcing and labeling policies. Additionally, states have taken it upon themselves to raise wages for the nation’s lowest-earning workers. See how these changes are reshaping the market in this edition of Influence Feed.
CARB Progress Report: The Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB) convened (PDF) March 30 and 31, to present (PDF) its annual antibiotics progress report. Prior to the meeting, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell articulated that CARB should address alternatives to antibiotics for both humans and animals, as well as strategies to minimize antibiotic resistance. David Wallinga, MD, of Natural Resources Defense Council challenged the group to “evaluate what’s not working for the U.S. to reach its ultimate goal of reducing widespread overuse of antibiotics. And issue a Plan B, one that recommends meaningful targets for reducing of antibiotic use in livestock.” The council concluded that efforts to address antibiotic resistance in livestock were underfunded in comparison to those for human use.
Slow-growing Chicken: On March 17, Global Animal Partnership (GAP) announced it would change its animal care standards to include switching to slower-growing breeds of chicken. The same day, Whole Foods Market — GAP’s largest partner — committed to comply with the standard by 2024. Anne Malleau, executive director for GAP, explained: “By addressing fast growth, we will be getting to the root of the welfare problem facing chickens today. Implementing this transition will require significant work, but we are confident we can get there.” Tom Super, National Chicken Council senior vice president of communications, responded (login required): “Chicken producers are in the business of providing choice in the marketplace, and we strongly support that choice. … We do not believe, however, that one production system should be vilified at the expense of another.”
Corporate Announcements: The second half of March witnessed an uptick in food companies publicly updating their sourcing policies, largely focusing on animal care. Following a wave of announcements by retailers early in the month (covered in Influence Feed “GMO Labeling Showdown”), national chains Supervalu, Inc. and Walgreens Co., as well as regional grocers Bashas’ Supermarkets, Meijer, Inc., and Raley’s Stores committed to source eggs from cage-free hens. Almost all of the grocers plan to transition by 2025. PepsiCo committed to sourcing cage-free eggs by 2020.
Foodservice companies addressed a broader array of animal care concerns. Shoney’s joined in planning to source cage-free eggs by 2025. Starbucks Corp. announced a new program to donate unsold food. Darden Concepts, Inc., (Olive Garden/LongHorn Steakhouse) committed to remove partially hydrogenated oils from its recipes and phase out “antibiotics important to human medicine … for growth promotion.” Bon Appétit Management Co. updated its animal care policy to source food from animals raised without the use of tail docking, castration or ractopamine and further committed to reduce meat portion sizes.
On March 28, The Campbell Soup Company announced it will remove bisphenol A (BPA) from its can linings by mid-2017. The following day, Del Monte Foods declared plans to move to non-BPA can linings as well as moving to non-GMO ingredients. Vani “The Food Babe” Hari praised Del Monte’s move, drawing criticism from others for joining “The Food Babe Army.”
Minimum Wages: On March 28, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced a plan to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022. Then, on March 31, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to a state budget that included a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour by 2018 in New York City and 2019 statewide. Unions and labor activist groups heralded the announcements as a victory for restaurant and farm workers, among other groups. Cuomo stated: “We believe that people who work hard should be able to earn a decent living and support a family with dignity. … We are going to prove that the economy can and should work for all.”
Meanwhile, academics and media publications investigated the impact higher wages will have on food prices. The Los Angeles Times concluded that restaurants will likely increase prices, while KQED found that grocery costs should be largely unaffected due to retail cost structures. David Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants (Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s) warned, “Dramatic increases in labor costs have a significant effect on the restaurant industry, where profit margins are pennies on the dollar and labor makes up about a third of total expenses. … The traditional full-service restaurant model, like those old gas stations with the employees swarming over your car, could well become a thing of the past.”
Cuba Talks: President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (among others) visited Cuba from March 20 to 22 and were joined by a coalition of representatives from agricultural companies and organizations — including Cargill, Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bunge Limited and Illinois Soybean Association. Although Obama is unable to lift the long-standing embargo himself, the trip provided the president with an opportunity to urge Congress to do so. Obama remarked: “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” Important food and agriculture developments and reports include:
- Vilsack announced an agreement allowing the use of checkoff funds to promote research and exports to Cuba.
- Industry groups, including American Soybean Association, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union, supported the approval of checkoff funding.
- Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) joined the envoy, touting export potential for North Dakota’s pulse and barley crops.
- Bloomberg reported that reduced trade barriers would be a boon to the frozen chicken exports.
- USA Today reported that Florida organic producers are concerned imports from Cuba could undercut their business.
- Miguel Altieri, professor of agroecology at UC, Berkeley, worried that Cuba’s organic food production systems could be undermined by modern production practices.
- However, not all was smooth sailing. Fidel Castro contended, “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.” And Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) opined, “There Is A Reason No U.S. President Has Visited Cuba For 88 years.”
GMO Labeling Commitments: Anticipating the July 1 deadline for Vermont’s GMO labeling measure, four large food processors announced commitments to label GMO ingredients: General Mills Inc. (March 18), Mars, Inc. (March 21), ConAgra Foods (March 22) and Kellogg Company (March 23). In a statement echoed by the other companies, Jeff Harmening, executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. Retail at General Mills, explained: “We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that. … With the Vermont labeling legislation upon us, and with the distinct possibility that other states will enact different labeling requirements, what we need is simple: We need a national solution.”
Media headlines focused on Vermont’s outsized role in food labeling regulation. In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack commented: “I think it’s also going to create a confusing mixture of ways in which individual companies and individual states are going to approach this issue. I think it begs for some sort of standardization.”
Lost in Translation: Scientific American hosted (PDF) a panel titled “Lost in Translation,” sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and industry group GMO Answers. The event took place in Washington, D.C. on March 31 and brought together scientists and journalists to discuss the issue of how science is reported in the media. Panelists included NYU journalism professor Keith Kloor, Washington Post reporter Tamar Haspel and Penn State University biology professor emeritus Dr. Nina Fedoroff, among others.
The panel itself prompted debate about balance in scientific reporting and perspectives on GMOs when Friends of the Earth Senior Project Manager Kari Hamerschlag voiced concerns on Medium and Paul Thacker wrote in The Huffington Post. As a counterpoint, climate scientist Mark Lynas questioned the validity media outlets give to certain activist opinions — particularly those that oppose scientific consensus.
The USDA released (PDF) its Prospective Plantings report on March 31, finding planned corn planting exceeds expectations. Bloomberg noted that corn futures dropped, as the acreage would be the third-highest since 1944.
Reuters reported that California snowpack levels have eased drought conditions, but not alleviated the situation entirely. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explained that El Nino conditions could further aid the situation in Southern California throughout the remainder of spring.