Programming note: Friday by Noon will be back for its final edition of 2022 in two weeks.

The year is winding down, but not without plenty of commotion in our nation’s capital. Between the Biden administration and Congress, your federal government kept busy churning out food policy despite entering a lame-duck session.

  • Congress averted a railroad worker strike.
  • Groups poked holes in the Kroger-Albertsons merger.
  • Opening salvos will set the tone for the 2023 Farm Bill negotiations.

Deal Time in the Switching Yard

On November 21, the final votes came in on a contract the Biden administration helped negotiate back in September between railroad workers and their employers. Of the 12 unions representing the workers, eight approved and four rejected the deal — citing a lack of paid sick days as the sticking point. Thousands of containers of food and farm products travel the rails daily, so industry experts have developments watched closely.

  • Despite support from the majority of unions, the dissent stirred concerns about strikes. Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies warned that a rail shutdown would amount to “a disastrous $2 billion a day hit to our economy.”
  • Industry groups — ranging from 204 members of the Agricultural Transportation Working Group to manufacturing-heavy Consumer Brands Association to the National Retail Federation — urged Congress to step in and impose the most-recent contract.
  • On November 28, President Biden requested that Congress take up the issue: “As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement. But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”
  • Politico noted that Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives catered to unions by passing two bills: one enforcing the September contract, the second adding seven paid sick days to sweeten the deal.
  • The U.S. Senate approved the bill imposing the contract on December 1, but did not approve the provision to increase paid sick leave (CBS News). President Biden is expected to sign the bill shortly.

Tough Merger

Executives from Kroger and Albertsons appeared before the Senate on November 29 to defend their proposed $20 billion merger. If approved, this mega-chain would hold a 14% share of retail grocery, behind Walmart’s 22% market.

  • The Wall Street Journal explained the business case the two companies have been making for the merger: competing with Walmart and online grocers, better ability to keep prices low, ability to pay higher wages and having capital for improving stores.
  • Food Processing summarized the hearing, capturing the viewpoint of a smaller retailer from Ohio who worried that the deal “would make the merged company even more able to squeeze competitors like his company with predatory pricing.”
  • Meatingplace quoted Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen’s defense: “Our business model is built around lowering prices to attract more customers, rather than making higher margins on fewer customers.”
  • Opposition to the merger was fierce: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted, “Consolidation leaves behind those communities most in need.” A senior Consumer Reports researcher argued that “shoppers would have fewer choices and more sticker shock” (CNBC). The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union objected to the merger cutting thousands of grocery jobs.

End-of-year Pre-billing

Now that midterm results are settled, jockeying for position about the 2023 Farm Bill has begun in earnest. Political groups, environmentalists, think tanks and others have made public their wish lists and agendas for the food and farm policy bill that will likely surpass half a trillion dollars for the first time.

  • Last week, Politico’s Garrett Downs broke down the intricate, divided interests between Republicans and Democrats, highlighted an abundance of bickering about the definition of “regenerative ag” and pointed out some common ground: “It appears there’s a way to please both [parties]: promoting farming methods that help growers use less fertilizer.”
  • Jonathan Ahl of Harvest Public Media noted that split chambers of Congress will make negotiation of nutrition titles tricky, particularly for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps).
  • Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Penn.) outlined plans to slow or stop Biden Administration changes to climate policy and pesticide approvals (Agri-Pulse).
  • The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s platform spanned 144 pages of suggestions that include “natural resources conservation” and “structural reform to farm programs.”
  • New Hope Network covered wish lists from the “natural” products sector, including support for organic feed production and approval for plant-based beverages in school lunches.
  • The American Farm Bureau Federation discussed how the Farm Bill could mitigate the risk to farmers of so-called “specialty crops” (a broad category that includes apples, lentils, pecans, zucchini and hundreds more). These smaller crops trail corn and soy in access to disaster relief, crop insurance and futures trading.
  • Modern Farmer highlighted the National Young Farmers Coalition’s aims to lower barriers to land access for beginning farmers.

Hey, What’s Good This Week?

Thanks to a study published by researchers at Cornell and USDA, we know that U.S. food pantries aren’t simply good in the abstract. They’re good to the tune of $19-$28 billion annually in economic value. The researchers conclude that these free organizations contribute as much as $1,000 each year to individual families, making food banks a vital resource in addressing food insecurity, which has grown worse with recent inflation. The study reviewed 13 years of data from a food bank in northern Colorado, then extrapolated the results nationally based on input from a 2014 Feeding America study.

Worth Reading

The Slow Macaroni Suit

A Florida woman has filed a class-action lawsuit against Kraft Heinz for falsely advertising the preparation time on its Velveeta Shells & Cheese packaging. NPR noted that Spencer Sheehan, the woman’s lawyer, “Has almost single-handedly caused a historic spike in the number of class action lawsuits against food and beverage companies — up more than 1000% since 2008.” If only our pasta cooked quicker, we might have the time to file frivolous lawsuits …

Whirlybird Wranglers

New York Times reporter Damien Cave explored the Australian practice of exporting tens of thousands of live cattle to Indonesia, recruiting helicopters in the process. “Born and bred on a fenceless expanse of golden grass and red dirt in the Australian outback, where horses, dingoes and crocodiles share the land, these animals are wild enough to charge a chopper.”

Fat Chance

Eight years after the cover of TIME told readers to “Eat Butter,” fat is still enjoying a renaissance in popular food marketing. Eater detailed how smaller olive oil brands are adopting edgier messages, bolder colors and over-the-top imagery “meant to evoke a lifestyle.” Author Jaya Saxena further explained, “We are in a moment when food trends are all about the extravagance … But the coolness becomes conferred by the look alone, secondary to any quality inherent to the product itself.” Thanks, Instagram …

Incredible, if Authentic

In Supermarket Perimeter, Donna Berry discussed the critical importance of using genuine egg products in baking. Amid rising costs due to supply chain issues and avian influenza, many bakers are seeking alternatives. However, “Whole eggs are known for providing more than 20 functions to baked goods. They influence overall appearance, flavor and richness as well as texture, batter quality and water activity.”