Ranchers are on alert as wildfires spread across the Texas panhandle. The blaze claimed 1 million acres between Monday and Wednesday, per Progressive Farmer. More to come.

On this February 29 edition of Plated by Bader Rutter, let’s leap into it:

  • The FTC v. Kroger and Albertsons
  • The White House v. hunger
  • States v. ingredients

Merging and Diverging

On February 26, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued to block the merger of Kroger and Albertsons, the country’s second- and fifth-largest grocery chains. Eight states and the District of Columbia joined the complaint, which deemed the merger anticompetitive and flagged the companies’ plan to spin off 413 locations to C&S Wholesale Grocers as an “inadequate” solution.

  • In a press release, FTC Bureau of Competition Director Henry Liu argued, “Kroger’s acquisition of Albertsons would lead to additional grocery price hikes for everyday goods, further exacerbating the financial strain consumers across the country face today.”
  • Kroger anticipated the FTC’s stance, publishing data on February 13 that showed how the company lowered prices in previous mergers.
  • The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents workers at both Kroger and Albertsons, welcomed the FTC’s move. President Marc Perrone said, “Any company who is looking to purchase stores must first and foremost honor our collective bargaining agreements and be committed to protecting these essential jobs now and in the years ahead.”
  • Along those lines, UFCW Local 555 supported the merger: “Employees of Kroger and C&S will be better off than employees of other potential buyers whose actions never seem to match the image they project publically.”
  • Independent grocer industry group National Grocers Association thanked the FTC for stepping in on a deal that “is engineered to enhance the largest conventional grocery chain’s leverage over suppliers at the expense of smaller rivals and grocery shoppers.”
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest President Dr. Peter Lurie warned that the deal would have “predictable adverse consequences for food and nutrition security for consumers across the country.”
  • State regulators and legislators have weighed in, too. Progressive Grocer reported on February 15 that Colorado filed its own lawsuit. Supermarket News tracked a bill in Washington state that would require new owners to retain workers for six months.

Our Takeaway: Between the Biden administration prioritizing antitrust policy and the president attacking grocers for high prices as part of his reelection campaign, we expect this story to be in the news for the rest of the year. The FTC may not win outright, but they’re likely to get concessions.

White House v. Hunger

On February 27, the Biden administration outlined  $1.7 billion in public and private sector commitments following up on the goals announced at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. ABC News summarized the commitments, which were announced by second gentleman Doug Emhoff (aka spouse of Vice President Kamala Harris).

  • Back in September 2022, the White House hosted its Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, a confluence of government, corporate and celebrity leaders. The administration committed to ending U.S. hunger (which the USDA estimates at 12.8% of households) and boosting nutrition by 2030, with support from corporate and organizational donations, amid high food prices and uncertain times. If you need a refresher, read our detailed summary from that week.
  • The Biden administration posted a comprehensive 13-page list of all the commitments introduced. Groups as diverse as the NFL Alumni Network to the North American Blueberry Council contributed. 
  • Tufts University announced two initiatives included in this round of commitments: the establishment of the Food is Medicine Institute and a collaboration between Tufts and healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente to create a national network to advance practicing food as medicine. 
  • Other notable commitments include “quick commerce” provider Gopuff donating 10 million pounds of food, Chicago-area food nonprofit Bigger Table delivering 10 million servings of healthy beverages to food banks, and Farmer’s Fridge donating 30 million meals to needy families.
  • Agriculture Dive detailed the 37 dairy brands’ commitment “to reduce added sugars and calories in non-fat and 1% flavored milk provided to schools and participants of federal summer lunch programs.” Interestingly, blueberries and dairy represented the only agricultural commodity groups contributing to the list.

Our Takeaway: While the catalog of commitments is impressive, with hunger increasing by three percentage points over the past year and a half, this feels overdue at best.

Artificially Illustrated
Researchers with giant green-glowing potato
You say “potato” I say “radioactive poisoning sensor.”
Midjourney image by Ryan Smith

A Pinch of This and a Dash of Not That

Companies have long emphasized what’s not in a product, promoting everything from sugar-free to non-GMO. But lately, states have been adding input on the ingredients or marketing terms that should be excluded:

  • California food additive bill spurs similar legislation in other states in 2024 | FMI
  • Interstate trade at risk as more states introduce ingredient bans | Food Business News
  • Indiana proposes ban of high fructose corn syrup | Food & Beverage Insider
  • Iowa Senate passes bill saying veggie burgers can’t be labeled ‘meat’ without qualifiers | Des Moines Register
  • France bans meat terms on plant-based products | Food Processing

Our Takeaway: Over the past decade, we’ve noticed Europe tends to export its ingredient and labeling rules to the United States. Domestically, California and New York break ground for other states to follow suit. Meat alternatives are exceptional for drawing ire on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously.

Worth Reading

Potatoes: Giver of Fries, Chips and … Radiation Detection?

Potatoes could be the ticket to improving safety in the nuclear energy industry. Leveraging their high radiation tolerance, scientists from the University of Tennessee have created phytosensors: potato plants that glow green when exposed to radiation. While mechanical sensors are ideal for everyday monitoring, they pose a risk of going offline during natural disasters. Phytosensors could serve as a supplementary sensor to monitor large areas of land surrounding power plants.

Soggy Supper

As American consumers continue to grapple with rising food prices, CNN Business illuminated the perspective of Kellogg’s CEO Gary Pilnick: “Let them eat Corn Flakes.” While the comments drew backlash on social media, Pilnick attests that cereal for dinner is gaining popularity. However, the product category may offer more value to household nutrition than domestic budgets — even cereal prices have increased by 28% since the start of 2020.

Surge In, Surge Out

Amid increased inflation and supply chain challenges, another variable looms: time of day. On February 26, Food & Wine featured Wendy’s decision to test Uber-style dynamic pricing. After widespread backlash, Wendy’s reversed course on the move. In a February 28 email to The Associated Press, the company stated: “Wendy’s will not implement surge pricing, which is the practice of raising prices when demand is highest. We didn’t use that phrase, nor do we plan to implement that practice.” We’ve seen this before — tech business models frequently fail when applied to food production.

Tummy Ache Timing

Food Safety News posted this handy table documenting the incubation periods of various foodborne illnesses. Not that you’ll read it if you’re nauseous, but it may be useful to know that Listeria takes up to 70 days to incubate while Staphylococcus aureus (aka Staph infections) can cause symptoms as quickly as 30 minutes. On the other hand, surge pricing can induce vomiting in as little as 10 seconds.