In a week of persistent themes, we looked for some fresh insights on recurring topics. And, as much as we like a good joke, this edition is 100% April Fools free. You’re welcome.

  • Food makers explored automation to ease worker shortages.
  • Plant-based proteins drew mixed responses on business developments.
  • The war in Ukraine prompted consideration of domestic food and fuel costs.

It is extraordinarily difficult for individuals in the U.S. to limit their sodium consumption to a healthy level, because we don’t really have a choice. The salt we add at the table accounts for less than 10% of the sodium we consume.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director (The Wall Street Journal)

Building a New Workforce

As the labor market remains tight, food and agriculture brands are increasingly turning to automation to fill in workforce gaps. Recent innovations may seem modest in scope, but tend to be more successful as a result.

  • In a March 21 podcast, the FDA and industry leaders discussed applications of artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure food safety by “enhancing predictive data analytic capabilities.”
  • Food Management shared a PYMNTS report that found the bulk of restaurants are adopting automated voice ordering capabilities despite “consumer hesitancy.”
  • Chipotle partnered with Miso Robotics on March 16 to develop Chippy: “an autonomous kitchen assistant that integrates culinary traditions with artificial intelligence to make tortilla chips.”
  • Joining a trend of vending machines that sell made-to-order food, RoboBurger unveiled its first “fully autonomous robotic burger chef” on March 25. Our prediction: burgers and pizzas are great, but french fries will be the game-changer.
  • Food Dive highlighted how AI is being harnessed by CPG companies to perform taste tests for quality assurance and aid in product reformulation.
  • AgFunder News profiled IUNU (pronounced “you knew”) sensor systems that recommend resource applications for growing leafy greens in greenhouses and vertical farming facilities.
  • A few brands even waded into the realm of fully digital. Jose Cuervo and Wendy’s opened the first distillery and restaurant (respectively) in the Metaverse. Would you like an NFT with that?

Authentically Persistent

Friction between advocates of real meat and meat substitutes continues. With Beyond Meat’s continuing stock decline and discontinued menu listings in QSRs, skepticism about the category widened. However, coverage and discussion of meatless products remains strong, and new product launches remain constant.

  • Restaurant Business reported that McDonald’s McPlant is not selling as well as expected, especially in rural areas.
  • Purdue Ag Economist Jayson Lusk published an analysis of the market potential for plant-based protein alternatives. One conclusion: “Characteristics of consumers most likely to select plant-based proteins include younger, those with children under the age of 12 years, having higher household income, residing in a Western state, and affiliating with the Democratic party.”
  • Beyond Meat launched yet another new product, this time partnering with PepsiCo to launch a plant-based jerky product.
  • Food Ingredients First summarized a report from backers of the plant-based category — Plant-Based Foods Association, The Good Food Institute and SPINS — that indicated steady growth led by alternative milk sales.
  • Food Manufacturing explored Israeli alternative protein maker BioBetter Ltd.’s development in cell-cultured meat: using tobacco plants. The “new role for the much-maligned Nicotiana tabacum plant upon discovering it can overcome one of the biggest hurdles in cultured meat — scaled production.”
  • Labeling plant-based protein with traditional meat nomenclature came back into question after a federal judge sided with Turtle Island Foods to overturn a 2019 Louisiana law. The law that prohibited terms like “burger” or “sausage” on packages for plant-based alternatives. (Food Safety News)

Supporting Ukraine

Five weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, food companies have expanded support of ongoing relief efforts while navigating the ever-evolving disruptions to the supply chain.

  • Smithfield Foods announced it would donate $2 million to crisis relief efforts helping Ukrainian citizens and refugees, reported Meat+Poultry. Additionally, the company committed to expanding its local aid in Central Europe through $250,000 in donations to the Global Red Cross Network, Mercy Chefs, Save the Children and the World Central Kitchen.
  • Publix customers and associates raised more than $1.1 million during a 10-day point-of-sale campaign to benefit global Red Cross relief efforts in Ukraine and neighboring countries.
  • USA Rice announced that three of its members — Sun Valley Rice, Farmers’ Rice Cooperative and Kennedy Rice Mill — offered 20 metric tons of U.S. Calrose rice, which will be shipped to Ukraine through a partnership with freight forwarders in the UK and the European Union, and with Ukraine importer Megasnab.
  • Seven agriculturalist organizations urged the USDA to allow farmers to plant on acres of “prime farmland” set aside for conservation to help offset the absence of Ukrainian crop imports, reported Reuters.
  • On March 24, the National Corn Growers Association revealed that corn growers from 19 states sent a letter to the Biden administration urging the use of more “homegrown renewable fuels, like ethanol” to help lower fuel prices and stabilize energy markets. Reuters wrote on March 30 that the Biden administration was considering such a move.

Hey, What’s Good This Week?

​​On March 30, Jersey Mike’s donated 100% of its sales to the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games as part of the company’s 12th Annual Day of Giving. With over 2,000 locations, the charitable donation was expected to top $10 million.

Community giving has long been part of the franchise. Traditionally, every new store holds a grand opening where customers receive a free regular sub for donating at least one dollar to a local charity. Jersey Mike’s instituted their Month of Giving in 2011, and has since raised over $47 million for local charities.

​​Another good at Jersey Mike’s? The #13 Mike’s Way + Pickles. Trust us on this.

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Defining Health

Former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden wrote in The Wall Street Journal that COVID-19 pales in comparison to another pandemic: “Globally, Covid killed more than 10 million people in the first two years of the pandemic; in the same two years, cardiovascular disease killed more than 35 million.” In the portion focusing on food, Frieden recommends a “simple” solution to hypertension that is very complicated to implement: sodium reduction.

Biden Budget Ambitions

Two weeks after Congress passed the budget for 2022, President Biden sent over his wishlist for next year. Chris Clayton of Progress Farmer provided a good overview of the facts, while politicians and interest groups chipped in a few opinions: Environmental Working Group praised funding for food safety, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) welcomed rural infrastructure funding, Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) decried “misplaced priorities,” such as using “the word ‘climate’ … almost as often as the word ‘agriculture.'”

A Day in Court

On March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that it agreed to hear a case brought by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation against California Proposition 12. The rule bans the sale of pork from hogs born to sows that weren’t raised according to the state’s “arbitrary” production standards. The Associated Press covered the news: “Two agricultural associations challenging the law say almost no farms satisfy those conditions. They say the ‘massive costs of complying’ with the law will ‘fall almost exclusively on out-of-state farmers’ and that the costs will be passed on to consumers nationwide.” Until standards are finalized in California, the rule is not currently being implemented or enforced.

Women’s History of School Lunches

To close out Women’s History Month, the USDA highlighted the important role women played in the creation and success of the National School Lunch Program. Meal programs in Philadelphia and Boston — led by the Star Association and the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union — ultimately grew into the federal program we have today. At the forefront of it all were the women who cooked and served the meals, while teaching children about the importance of nutrition and choosing healthy food.

Another Day, Another ‘Hard Seltzer’

Following several brand debuts of new hard seltzer lines in an already saturated market, Eater questioned the continued “seltzerification of the beverage market.” As more brands jump on the hard-seltzer bandwagon, it’s becoming harder to “distinguish between a trendy hard seltzer as opposed to an outdated old-fashioned wine cooler.”