Topics on many fronts kept things interesting in this action-packed week:

  • Sustainability discussions framed policy, partnerships and public do-gooding.
  • Perspectives from throughout food production contextualized Black History Month.
  • Lawmakers confirmed Vilsack. Again.

“40+ years as a public servant and I’m finally sending my first tweet! Honored to serve our nation once again alongside USDA’s dedicated public servants.”

— Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture (Twitter)

Momentum Builders

Sustainability, in its broadest definition, inspired a number of recent announcements, trumpeting policies and progress that attempted to match commitment with corporate action.

  • On February 22, the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance expanded its membership and added working groups to guide the development of federal climate legislation.
  • Food Dive highlighted efforts by Mondelez to step into impact investing through its Sustainable Futures program, and Unilever for its comprehensive plan to reduce food waste.
  • Earlier this month at the online Greenbiz21, leaders from PepsiCo, Danone and Kellogg’s shared how partnerships, niche brands and ESG investing are helping their organizations meet aggressive climate commitments (Green Biz).
  • Annie’s Homegrown pledged to remove ortho-phthalates from its supply chain. The chemicals “…may be present in the packaging material and food processing equipment that produces the cheese and cheese powder in our macaroni and cheese.” (New York Times).
  • Texas residents praised regional grocery chain H-E-B for allowing shoppers to leave without paying for groceries when the Leander, Texas, store lost electricity in the recent winter storm (Washington Post).
  • Triple Pundit highlighted a Case IH donation of life-saving medical equipment to the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia to help save lives from the pandemic.
  • Our team published “Striving to Do Good Despite Adversity” as part of our annual Top Topics report, exploring how the pandemic and attention to social inequality presented opportunities to address CSR topics (Page 8).

Black History Month

As February winds down, Black History Month was a dominant theme in food production discussions. While much of the content celebrated contributions by Black Americans, other points of view criticized lingering racial inequities throughout food production.

  • On February 1, McDonald’s tweeted, “From trailblazing franchisees and corporate change makers to hardworking restaurant managers and crew, we’re proud of how our Black McFamily members feed and foster communities around the world.”
  • The Future Farmers of America acknowledged “innovators who changed the way we farm.” The youth organization highlighted the achievements of Henry Blair, Frederick McKinley Jones, George Washington Carver, Karen Washington and Booker T. Whatley.
  • A piece in The Guardian described rallies in 15 cities demanding chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s pay workers $15 an hour.
  • Gerry Fernandez of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance posted an opinion in Nation’s Restaurant News suggesting that “[restaurant] managers must master the skills of self-awareness, cultural intelligence, and empathy.”
  • AP writer Roxana Hegeman detailed the dramatic slide in the number of Black farmers in the United States: from 14% a century ago to 1.4% today.
  • As part of the proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief stimulus package, lawmakers introduced two pieces of legislation: the Justice for Black Farmers Act and the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act (Reuters). Environmental Working group said this legislation, if passed, will give Black farmers the tools they need to succeed.

Vilsack’s Official

On February 23, the U.S. Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as the secretary of Agriculture, leading the USDA for the Biden cabinet. In our coverage of the most influential voices in food production, this position joins the ranks of C-suite leaders of the largest food and agriculture companies worldwide in terms of influence.

  • Vilsack, who also served eight years in the Obama administration, returns to lead more than 100,000 employees across 14 agencies charged with food stamps, food safety, production inspection, land conservation, crop insurance and more.
  • Reuters summarized Vilsack’s confirmation, adding that his priorities include fighting climate change, international trade and coronavirus relief to struggling farmers.
  • Groups including the U.S. Dairy Export Council (Vilsack’s employer in between USDA secretary gigs), CropLife America, National Milk Producers Federation and the ag committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives all offered welcoming messages.
  • The Hill reported that Sen. Bernie Sanders joined six Republicans who opposed Vilsack’s nomination: “I like Tom and I’ve known him for years. I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture.”
  • Friends of the Earth challenged Vilsack to “transform the USDA to support a more diversified, regenerative, healthy, and just food system.”

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Alt-Protein Partnerships

A February 25 Beyond Meat earnings call with CEO Ethan Brown confirmed two key partnerships between Beyond and two titans of quick service: McDonald’s and Yum! Brands. Food Business News outlined the latest details, as McDonald’s supplier for the McPlant project had been somewhat vague and the Yum! partnership is an extension of a previous deal between the two companies. Expect plenty of commentary as this develops.

Nestle on Quaker

“As a general rule, industry-funded studies produce results favorable to the sponsor’s interests. But what have we here?” asked Marion Nestle, describing PepsiCo-funded research on oat flakes. The study found that instant oats don’t offer the nutritional punch of their whole grain unprocessed cousins. The Food Politics blogger scrutinizes industry-funded studies with her almost-weekly posts and is well worth following.

Cutting Out the Middle Man

The Wall Street Journal highlighted recent efforts from restaurants to avoid the dominant delivery apps like DoorDash and GrubHub — and their hefty fees. “We didn’t want to continue to deal with these companies, they are the necessary evil for us right now,” said Stephanie Mattingly, chief marketing officer at seafood QSR Long John Silver’s, which plans to launch its own delivery app this year.

The Future Is ATOM

Givaudan Taste & Wellbeing has been trying to speed up the process of flavor development. Their research investigator Rahul Siva told Food Ingredients First how the firm is using artificial intelligence technology called ATOM (Advanced Tools for Modelling): “The tools identify positive and negative flavor drivers and explore ingredient synergies, to generate new options and insights aligned with consumer preferences.”

Feta Makes It Betta

Finnish food blogger Jenni Häyrinen knew she made it when The Wall Street Journal’s Annie Gasparro covered her Feta/tomato/pasta dish. Her TikTok post went viral this month, with more than 600 million views, causing a run on the crumbly Greek cheese and even earning a stipple drawing on the cover of WSJ.

Sugar: 86 Ghost Kitchens

Grub Street’s Rachel Sugar delivered a superb rant about ghost kitchens on February 18. Disagreeing with umpteen cited sources that consider ghost kitchens the future of foodservice, Sugar concludes, “Delivery is not good. Delivery is, at best, okay. It is fine. It can even be enjoyable (especially if it is pizza). But compared to food served inside a restaurant, it is a constant letdown.” Nailed it.