While most of us spent the weekend trick-or-treating (or trunk-or-treating), the spookiest action in food and agriculture came from disruptions to trade and transportation. Again.

  • Restaurant industry analyses served up more bad news.
  • Mexico and Russia shook up commodity markets.
  • Food transportation hit a slowdown within the U.S.

‘A Massive Slide’

The foodservice industry continues to play catch-up nearly three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Average restaurant hours of operation fell 6.4 hours per week compared to pre-pandemic numbers, according to research firm Datassential. Calling it “a massive slide,” Datassential attributed the 7.5% drop to labor shortages.
  • Exemplifying this trend, Denny’s unveiled a plan to restore 24/7 operation. FSR wrote that only 60% of its stores are currently running 24/7, compared to 95% pre-pandemic.
  • In a Nation’s Restaurant News podcast, senior editor Bret Thorn declared the death of the daypart: “The three-course meal and the three-meal day still have their part to play in nourishing Americans, but increasingly consumers are spreading out their eating to suit their evolving needs.”
  • Vox explored restaurant service fees, which have contributed to increasing check averages. “Service charges are making dining out more expensive, but that doesn’t mean your server sees that cash.”
  • Foodservice worker Caitlin Hart opined in Civil Eats: “Tech has a place in restaurants … But relying on technology in a way that removes agency from the humans in the equation is hell on workers. It also often bypasses one of the central joys of dining out: human connection.”
  • In case restaurants haven’t gotten exclusive enough for you, The Associated Press reports that San Francisco-based Dogue now serves filet mignon to dogs — and only dogs. Somewhere, Marie Antoinette is smirking …

Food Diplomacy

Billions of lives worldwide depend on the uninterrupted flow of food and agricultural goods, so it quickly becomes a big deal when anything upsets the status quo. As U.S. producers contended with changes in Mexican trade policy, war factored into overseas exchanges.

  • As the largest importer of U.S. corn, Mexico raised eyebrows when it passed a ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), effective 2024. NPR quoted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: “While there may be decisions made in Mexico not to cultivate [GMO] corn, it doesn’t limit the ability of Mexico to import.” That’s a big deal, considering 90% of U.S. corn is genetically modified.
  • In The Hill, George Mason University researcher Christine McDaniel noted that Mexico’s policy is projected to cost the country’s economy $20 billion and could hit U.S. corn growers for $13.6 billion over 10 years.
  • On a different front, Floridian members of Congress petitioned the U.S. Trade Representative to investigate Mexican producers for dumping fruit and vegetables at artificially low prices.
  • The USTR rejected the Floridian petition on October 24, instead opting to establish an advisory panel “to promote the competitiveness of producers of seasonal and perishable produce.”
  • On the global front, Farm Journal’s Jenna Hoffman cited reports from the Chinese military that suggested the need to import food — particularly from the United States — posed a roadblock to invading Taiwan.
  • Reuters reported on October 31 that Russia jeopardized global wheat supplies by withdrawing from a deal allowing Ukrainian exports that are often destined for food-secure regions in Africa and the Middle East. On November 3, the warring nations agreed to reinstate the prior agreement (The Associated Press).
  • AgFunder News posted an opinion piece that Russia’s actions highlighted the need for a “Marshall Plan for food.” Author Johan Jorgensen argued that distributing food production across more countries would reduce geopolitical instability.

Stopped Up

Snarled transportation over land and sea is further complicating supply chains, elevating discussions of rising food costs. The massive drought that has gripped the western United States has also migrated east, threatening to affect crop yields, water-bound transportation and exports. Additionally, a looming railroad worker strike has resurfaced, which only further exacerbates an already challenging situation.

  • Andrew Walmsley, American Farm Bureau Federation senior director of government affairs, listed all the weak transportation links throughout the food supply chain: labor availability, high diesel prices, low waterway levels, service issues and a potential of a railway strike.
  • Des Moines Register reporter Donnelle Eller summarized how a drought in the High Plains and Midwest has vastly reduced water levels in the Mississippi River. Farmers are concerned that the low water levels will not only obstruct products heading downstream for international export, but also incoming barges that carry fertilizer for the spring planting season.
  • Agri-Pulse listened in on ADM’s quarterly earnings call, during which CEO Juan Ricardo Luciano cited low water levels of the Mississippi River as likely to reduce soybean exports, and delay corn exports into 2023.
  • The Scoop interviewed consultant Altin Kalo about rising fuel costs. Kalo noted that “Diesel fuel affects the entire food supply chain, from the tractors and pickup trucks on the farm to the trucks that deliver grains and livestock to plants and the vehicles that move meat products and finished goods to processing plants and retail stores.”
  • Supermarket News shared some Food Shippers of America research that prioritized the biggest concerns for food retail leaders. Labor and transportation capacity issues ranked the highest.
  • The potential for a railroad worker strike resurfaced after two unions rejected a tentative agreement reached back in September. On October 27, more than 300 food and agriculture industry groups signed a letter to President Biden urging his administration “to provide stability and predictability to the system. Your involvement can only help make that happen and ensure there is no interruption to rail service.”

Worth Reading

Marionberry Supreme?

Eater described how chefs have been re-creating their own version of Taco Bell’s storied Crunchwrap Supreme. “Its lasting popularity is a testament to the foods that excite us now, and how nostalgia, the internet, and Portland’s ethos shape the local restaurant world.” Chef Gabriel Rucker in Portland, Oregon, stuffed one copycat with duck and marionberry hoisin sauce. Talk about “Live más.”

Researchers Under the Microscope

An October 31 New York Times article profiled Dr. Frank Mitloehner, who researches livestock sustainability. The Times criticized the Clear Center at UC Davis, which Mitloehner runs, for accepting funds from the nonprofit Institute for Feed Education and Research. In a response, he wrote, “I cannot help the livestock sector reduce its environmental impact without working directly with its members.”

Guess Who’s Back?

The McRib officially returned to McDonald’s restaurants on Monday, once again teasing a final, final farewell tour. Bloomberg reported that pork-rib stocks had gone up by 79% for the month of September, likely in anticipation of the return of “The GOAT of sandwiches.” Emily Heil from The Washington Post responded to the farewell news by referring to the sandwich as a “toxic relationship” that keeps coming back.

Edible Robots

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) designed an edible drone that could help provide aid in search and rescue missions. The drone prototype was built with edible rice cake wings, allowing it to carry more payload than most other delivery drones while still transporting life-sustaining nutrients.