The times, they are a-changin’. Slowly. And incrementally.

  • Grocery and restaurant chains rethink how consumers buy food.
  • The USDA rethinks how it aligns nutrition assistance with nutrition guidelines.
  • Legislators rethink how to move a 2024 Farm Bill forward.

Channel Surfing

Facing a tight market, foodservice, retail and delivery channels are pursuing any avenue they can to get ahead. Not all of these efforts are working out.

  • Supermarket Perimeter dug into the benefits of using Retail Media Networks to share inventory and shopper data for “hyper-contextual, hyper-personal” product promotions — be that timely discounts or regular old advertising. Creepy, yet practical.
  • On April 16, discount grocer ALDI debuted checkout-free technology at an Illinois location, making it the first full-size retail location with the feature.
  • Just two weeks before ALDI’s move, Amazon Fresh swapped its “Just Walk Out” concept for smart carts, which NPR called “a big admission of defeat.”
  • Eater reported that chefs are embracing the results-oriented approach of Wonder, a new entrant into the restaurant delivery space. Meanwhile, Gopuff launched a direct-to-consumer platform for CPG brands to embrace rapid delivery options (Progressive Grocer).
  • Other brands are reconsidering delivery and pickup efforts. Sky News broke news that Getir (which owns FreshDirect) is insolvent and considering how to restructure. Supermarket News tracked plans from Kroger and Giant Food (owned by Ahold Delhaize) to shutter e-commerce facilities.
  • Progressive Grocer highlighted the role that Walmart associates play in the adoption of autonomous forklifts to unload deliveries at its Brooksville, Florida, distribution center.

Our Takeaway: Pursuing innovation benefits the industry through healthier competition. The trick for companies is learning from moves that don’t pan out.

Mo’ Veggies, Mo’ Problems

USDA announced updates to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The program was conceived at the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health in 1969 in order to address growing public concern about malnutrition. Fully authorized in 1972, the program provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods and healthcare for low-income mothers and their children. The updates, the first since 2014, became final on April 9, but not without disagreement from groups representing the products included (or not included). 

  • Reuters’ Leah Douglas summarized the revisions and the USDA’s goal of aligning with the latest nutritional science and U.S. dietary guidelines. Topline: the packages included in the program included more produce, less dairy, less juice products and more packaging flexibility. 
  • Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer at FMI, The Food Industry Association, welcomed the move: “We are glad USDA accepted the recommendations we made … to ensure all mothers and children served by the WIC program will be able to secure the nutritious foods they need to thrive..”
  • The National Grocers Association also voiced support. “These changes will improve the shopping experience for customers and ensure that retailers are better able to meet their needs.”
  • On the other hand, National Milk Producers Federation EVP Paul Bleiberg expressed (audio release) concern about dairy’s lower allotment in the WIC update. He argued that dairy is under-consumed by all populations in the United States and most Americans are not meeting their recommended servings of dairy, which contains “nutrients of public health concern.” 

Our Takeaway: Improving any government assistance program will introduce contention among perceived winners and losers.

Farm Bill, Probably

It’s back! Everyone’s favorite food-system-spanning legislation, the farm bill, appears to be moving along again after stalling for several months. Politicians, lobbyists and public interest groups are gearing up to defend their interests:

  • Washington insiders now think we could get a first look at a new farm bill as early as next week | The Scoop
  • House Ag Republicans shop ‘slimmed down’ version of EATS Act | Politico
  • House Ag GOP makes farm bill pitch to Democrats | Agri-Pulse
  • Ag Secretary criticizes House GOP study group plan to slash farm programs | DTN/Progressive Farmer
  • Vilsack on farm bill | AgNet West
  • NCGA’s Hartman travels to Capitol Hill to push for crop insurance improvements | National Corn Growers Association
  • Producers dig into farm bill conversations | Pork Business
  • Safe Food Coalition opposes meat inspection deregulation amendments to farm bill | Consumer Federation of America
  • “Outreach to policymakers in Washington shines a light on the need for resources from legislation such as the Farm Bill and programs including SNAP benefits.” | Food Research & Action Center on X

Our Takeaway: It seems that there is enough political willpower in Congress to make headway on the 2024 Farm Bill, despite it being an election year. Of course, there are no guarantees that negotiations on a piece of legislation this large will wrap up before November.

Worth Reading

Private-label Posers

As private-label products continue to gain popularity, Supermarket News detailed Amazon’s sly efforts to enhance its own private-label food brand, Wickedly Prime, by replicating Trader Joe’s top 200 products. To compete with Trader Joe’s dedicated customer following, the online retail powerhouse hired a former Trader Joe’s senior snack-foods business manager and allegedly pressured her to share Trader Joe’s sales data and margins. Although the Amazon employees who accessed the data were eventually fired, it’s no secret that Trader Joe’s has ideas worth pirating.

Scent-sational Billboards

Many have said, “We eat first with our eyes.” However, a recent campaign from McDonald’s indicates that we also can eat first with our nose. AdWeek explored the ingenuity of scented billboards deployed by McDonald’s Netherlands, which direct the smell of the chain’s bestselling fries to passersby. While entirely unbranded, each billboard was strategically placed within 200 meters of a McDonald’s, attracting consumers enticed by the sensory nostalgia. Who needs words or logos to drive business anyway?

​​Leaded or Unleaded?

In pushback to a widely covered story of lead in Kraft-Heinz Lunchables, Consumer Brands Association blogged about how the “clickbait-laden” coverage buried the simple explanation that “some contaminants, like lead and cadmium, are naturally found in the environment.” The group singles out Consumer Reports for “cherry-picking data” and applying inconsistent standards. We pack our own lunches for entirely different reasons.

The Toast of Toasted Cheese Sandwiches

Amid the pandemic in 2021, a Chicago man (The New York Times) became our hero for diving into Lake Michigan every day for a year. But Food & Wine just profiled a different kind of hero, Reddit user Pkonko37, who as of this publication is on Day 234 of creating, testing and enjoying grilled cheese sandwiches. His tastes extend well beyond Singles on white: the North Carolina grocery worker insists on different cheeses each day, studiously reviewing and posting the results to the Reddit page r/grilledcheese. We doubt he has leftovers.

Those Cuckoo Cocoa Costs

Over this past quarter, cocoa futures have tripled in price. The Hustle analyzed the contributing factors, specifically severe weather, the war in Ukraine, government regulations, land rent increases and a rise in theft. It’s a fascinating in-depth article and to the surprise of exactly no one, the West African farmers responsible for most cocoa bean farming are not the ones profiting. At least, so far.

Tortillas for Tots

In a unique twist on enriched grains, Food Ingredients First reported that Amsterdam-based Corbion is developing corn tortillas fortified with folic acid. The product intends to help reduce spina bifida and other issues among infants. Despite recommendations from Center for Science in the Public Interest in its “Failure to Fortify” report, published in 2023, only 14% of U.S. masa (corn flour) products contain folic acid. And, despite being a staple in Mexican and Latin American diets, no tortillas do. But who expected the solution to come from … the Netherlands?

Artificially Illustrated
Small child with tortilla
Apparently, it’s never too early to start the tots on tacos.

Midjourney rendering by Ryan Smith