Two developments in the food production world got big enough for the president to get involved, both of which will have repercussions across food supply chains.

  • The Biden administration aided negotiations to avoid a nationwide railroad worker strike.
  • The president issued an executive order bolstering biotechnology in food and agriculture production.

“Hot sauce must be hot. If you don’t like it hot, use less. We don’t make mayonnaise here.”

David Tran, Sriracha Founder (Twitter)

Heading Off a Strike

Railroads are vital infrastructure for food and agriculture transportation, especially early in the supply chain. And railroad worker union negotiations hit a critical juncture as contracts were set to expire at midnight tonight (September 16). After 20 hours of negotiations on Wednesday, September 14 — with President Biden’s involvement, no less — 12 unions reached a tentative agreement over renewed contracts.

  • As of Thursday evening, all parties had reached a tentative agreement to retroactively increase wages and adjust future scheduling rules. The unions will still need to ratify the contract, but a strike has been averted.
  • Leading up to the contract deadline, The New York Times addressed the potential supply chain disruption that a shutdown could cause.
  • Reuters reported on September 13 that rail companies planned to halt grain shipments on September 15, “threatening exports and feed deliveries for livestock.”
  • In a letter to union leaders, National Grain and Feed Association President and CEO Mike Seyfert warned that the interruption comes just as harvest kicks up: “No one wins if a shutdown occurs — the agricultural value chain and consumers who rely on it stand to lose the most.”
  • Lisa Baertlein of Reuters predicted that the spectacle could embolden other unions, such as those representing West Coast port workers, to push for more concessions.

Backing BE

Bioengineered foods returned to the spotlight on September 12, as President Biden backed the use of biotechnology and bioengineering in an executive order. The USDA and a federal judge weighed in on two particular applications.

  • President Biden’s action provides funding to research and develop new products using biotechnologies for food security, agricultural efficiency and supply chain resilience.
  • Agricultural groups, such as the American Soybean Association and the Corn Refiners Association, welcomed the support. Notably, soybeans and corn are two crops that rely primarily on bioengineered varieties.
  • Meatingplace observed that cultivated (aka lab-grown) meat is specifically called out as a beneficiary.
  • The Breakthrough Institute argued that biotechnology is an “underrated and underfunded environmental tool,” and called for greater support in the 2023 Farm Bill.
  • Researchers from North Carolina State University highlighted a major hurdle to the administration’s goal: inconsistent regulation (Modern Farmer).
  • As a perfect case study, the USDA approved a purple tomato after 14 years of studies (Food Ingredients First). The tomato is genetically modified to produce high amounts of anthocyanin, which has been linked to a lower risk of developing cancer.
  • On September 14, a federal judge upheld Trump administration rules for bioengineered food labels, but ruled that QR codes alone cannot be used for disclosure.
  • Activist group Center for Food Safety cheered the decision against QR codes as “a key step toward ending the food industry’s deceptive and discriminatory GMO food labeling practices.”
  • The non-GMO project complained that President Biden’s support of biotechnology is “an expensive distraction.” And charging companies to verify food products that currently cannot contain bioengineered ingredients … is cheap?

Hey, What’s Good This Week?

Eliminating single-use plastic shopping bags is definitely good and this week, grocery chain Wegmans announced it will phase them out of all its 18 Pennsylvania stores by September 22. The chain had already dropped them from its New York stores in January 2020, prior to that state’s ban.

This is the first step in eliminating the bags chainwide by the end of this year as the chain urges patrons to either bring their own reusable bags or pay 5 cents for paper bags. The chain also donates the collected bag fees to local chapters of the United Way, amounting to over $1.7 million last year alone. That’s real good on multiple levels, though one’s trash can be another’s art.

Worth Reading

A $3 Billion Raise for the Planet

USDA’s spring 2021 pilot program for climate-smart agriculture development garnered enough attention that the agency decided $1 billion would not suffice. On September 14, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an additional $2.8 billion in funds for projects ranging from soil health and irrigation to grazing and forestry.

Digital Dining

Restaurants continue to engage more with the metaverse. On September 12, Starbucks opened a digital storefront for rewards members to buy virtual collectibles (Nation’s Restaurant News). But when Chipotle debuted its garlic guajillo steak in the metaverse, Jaya Saxena of Eater asked, “Truly, why is ‘virtual tasting’ even a thing? … this is the least exciting thing I’ve ever heard of.” More to the point, Saxena asked: if you’re in a place where you can do anything, “Why are you going to a Chipotle, the place down the street?”

The Queen’s Condiments

As King Charles assumed the British throne, a peculiar bit of bureaucracy struck the food world. Any companies that earned the distinction of the British Royal Warrant for providing food items to the royal family have officially had that status revoked. Mashed reported that more than 100 brands will have to reapply for the status, including high-class brands like Heinz ketchup.

Hot ‘Immigrant Hustle’

In a 21-post Twitter thread, independent journalist Trung Phan posted a fascinating history of Sriracha and its creator Vietnamese-American David Tran. “Hot sauce must be hot. If you don’t like it hot, use less. We don’t make mayonnaise here.”

Someone Out-tacos the Bell

In all the hype for Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza, foodservice rivals were bound to get jealous. Mike Pomranz of Food & Wine revealed the latest menu item from sister company Pizza Hut: the “Italian Taco.” While not exactly groundbreaking — it’s just a folded slice of pizza — the brand is really angling for one-upmanship: “This nearly unbelievable innovation will never run out.” It’s been said that consumers win when companies compete, and we concur.