After the long Independence Day weekend, we’re back with the trending stories from these more lazy summertime news cycles:

  • Dollars spent on grilling go up.
  • USDA allocations go out.
  • Labeling spurs debate over what goes on front.

“You can’t tell by looking at food whether it is done. Always use a food thermometer.”

Yolande Mitchell, Management Analyst, FSIS (USDA)

Tube Steaks, Inflation and American Independence

High food prices drove the bulk of the food conversation around Independence Day on July 4. Competitive eating, food safety and a deep dive on hot dogs factored in as well.

  • MUST READ: The Washington Post’s illustrated description of how competitive hot dog eaters prepare for battle. The article describes the ideal body type, chewing style and more. “In competition, you can’t hope. You have to get prepared. Be ready,” reflected 2023 champ Joey Chestnut, who ate 62 dogs in 10 minutes.
  • The Scoop posted a Rabobank graphic of the “BBQ Index” that showed the largest 4-year increase in cookout foods (ground beef, cheese slices, chips, soda, etc.) since the 1970’s.
  • The American Farm Bureau Federation framed the facts in a more optimistic perspective: summer cookout prices are slightly down from a 10-year high. “Although historically high, the cost of the cookout breaks down to less than $7 per person. When put in a global context, Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other country.”
  • The National Farmers Union contrasted retail prices with the share farmers receive for typical cookout items, and linked to 2021 USDA data that showed the farmers’ share of the food dollar has reached a historic low of 14.5 cents per dollar.
  • USDA offered food safety advice, with cook-safe temperatures for each type of meat. “You can’t tell by looking at food whether it is done.”
  • On July 4, NPR dug into why competitive eating has become a “sacred American ritual.”
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Pervaiz Shallwani called hot dogs the “It” restaurant order of the summer in an article that explained gourmet and exotic tube steaks.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Over the past fortnight, the USDA has opened up its wallet and doled out some serious cash for programs ranging from school meals to ethanol production. As the fifth-largest federal agency by budget, the USDA accounts for $487 billion (3.64%) of federal funds. Somehow, the FDA gets a lot less dough for ensuring the safety of bread.

  • All four leaders of Congressional committees that oversee the USDA — Democrats and Republicans alike — chastised administrators of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP aka food stamps) after a report found that states erred by 11.54% in distributing benefits.
  • The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities explained that SNAP actually outperforms most other government programs when it comes to accuracy, but last year’s 9.84% overpayment rate was a 60% increase from pre-pandemic levels.
  • Food Management covered budget plans for the school meals program, including $1.3 billion to cover inflationary costs for states to purchase U.S.-grown food products.
  • In the same June 23 statement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $400 million in grants available for expanding domestic fertilizer production. These funds are intended to reduce dependence on Russian fertilizer production.
  • On June 29, the administration awarded $115 million to developers of small meat processors. The Des Moines Register noted that a local plant will get $25 million toward its $450 million budget.
  • But those new processing facilities won’t survive if foreign animal diseases continue to ravage farms. To this end, the USDA earmarked $502 million for building a rapid response to avian flu outbreaks (Reuters).
  • With funds from the Inflation Reduction Act, the agency announced $25 million in grants to expand 59 ethanol infrastructure projects across 15 states. The Renewable Fuels Association — which is largely composed of corn and soybean farmers — offered support for companies applying for the remaining $450 million in the program.

Judging Food by Its Cover

Between meat companies pulling back on marketing claims and proposed changes to federal food labeling laws, there are plenty of packaging updates in play:

  • Comment now on FDA’s front-of-package label proposals | Food Politics
  • Tyson Foods to drop ‘no antibiotics ever’ label on some chicken products | Perishable News
  • JBS pulls ‘aspirational’ claims about its net zero emissions goal | Food Dive
  • ‘Made in the USA’ or ‘Product of USA’ favored by the public during comments | Food Safety News
  • Dairy farmers urge FDA to crack down on animal-free dairy milk labels | AgFunder News
  • Clean label, gluten-free cookies in high demand | Supermarket Perimeter

Hey, What’s Good This Week?

Albertsons, the grocery conglomerate that includes giants such as Safeway, Von’s and Jewel-Osco, launched a month-long “Fight Hunger, Serve Hope” program this week. For every private-label O Organics product purchased, the company will donate a meal to Nourishing Neighbors, up to 28 million meals or $7 million. The meals focus on filling the breakfast gap for at-risk youth during the summer when school cafeterias are closed.

Worth Reading

Office Spaces Grow New Roots

As office usage rates remain well below their pre-pandemic levels, Modern Farmer investigated how vegetable producers are repurposing vacant office spaces to accommodate vertical farming operations. With indoor HVAC systems offering ideal environments for producing herbs, greens and root vegetables, many systems can be easily installed, quickly turning commercial vacancy issues into food security solutions for local communities. What a novel way to go green.

Meet the New Boss

For the first time in over two decades, Bud Light is no longer the best-selling beer in America. So which brand rose to the top? Food Dive reported that the reigning champ is Mexican lager Modelo Especial. Maybe we can all take a page from the Modelo marketing strategy — slow brand building pays off.

To Fridge or Not to Fridge?

Heinz finally settled the debate of where ketchup should be stored — in the fridge or the cupboard? According to a report from The Washington Post, Heinz stirred up online controversy with a tweet declaring that ketchup belongs in the fridge.

(Less Than) Millions of Peaches

New York Times reporter Kim Severson lamented the weather-devastated peach crop in Georgia. “In a state where eating a peach over the kitchen sink is a birthright, cobbler recipes are passed down through the generations and a baffling number of streets in Atlanta are named Peachtree, a summer without peaches is unfathomable.”