Programming note: Plated by Bader Rutter will return on April 11.

The entire food production system got some scrutiny this week, from agricultural building blocks like water and chicken to finished products at retail and foodservice. 

  • Food prices: a consumer and campaign issue. 
  • Avian flu: a contagion concern for cattle.
  • Water: a conversation on conservation. 

No One Likes High Prices

Food prices are still a hot topic four years after the COVID-19 pandemic first upset supply chains. Consumer behavior is still adapting, and no one seems happy about it. As President Biden campaigns on the topic, his administration has continued to investigate anticompetitive practices.

  • Supermarket Perimeter shared analysis — presented at an FMI event — that showed average incomes have increased at roughly the same rate as food prices since January 2020. 
  • But clearly not every income has kept up. Bloomberg detailed how ongoing grocery inflation is hurting voters’ opinions of the economy and President Biden’s reelection campaign as a result.
  • Circana reaffirmed that retail food prices and sales remained flat over the past year, but consumer spending patterns have changed since 2019. Marshal Cohen, Circana’s chief retail industry advisor, explained: “Consumers are settling into their new spending pattern of buying what they need as they go.”
  • In an adding-insult-to-injury situation, The Associated Press covered a European Central Bank report that predicted a 1.5 to 1.8 percentage point annual increase in food prices over the next decade due to extreme weather caused by climate change.
  • For its part, the Biden administration continues to blame consolidation for part of food price inflation. On March 21, the Federal Trade Commission released a report on grocery supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report concluded that large grocers leveraged market share to obtain supply preference during shortages and warned, “As supply chains normalize, some of these symptoms may subside, but the underlying issues remain.”
  • Representing independent grocers, National Grocers Association President and CEO Greg Ferrara applauded the report for exposing how “dominant national chains … are abusing their immense economic power to the detriment of competition and American consumers.”

Our Takeaway: Given the Biden administration’s focus on them, food prices are likely to remain in the limelight this election year. And yet it’s unlikely the FTC will be able to follow up on its findings before November.

Sick Cows, Safe Food

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI, aka bird flu) has had a significant impact on poultry (both chicken and turkey) and egg production beginning early in 2022 and extending to the present. The virus spreads among wild birds like ducks and can infect domestic poultry, but it normally does not infect humans nor does it have food safety implications. New causes for concern over avian flu arose as cases of the virus were detected in dairy cattle.

  • As early as March 22, Farm Journal tracked “mystery illnesses” in dairy cattle across Texas, New Mexico and Kansas.
  • On March 25, the American Veterinary Medical (AVMA) issued a statement confirming the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in cattle in Texas and Kansas. AVMA “underscored the importance of adherence to biosecurity measures, vigilance in monitoring for disease, and immediately involving your veterinarian when something seems ‘off.’”
  • On the same day, Reuters’ Tom Polansek reported that HPAI was detected in milk from sick cows in those states.
  • Four major U.S. dairy associations promptly emphasized the safety of dairy milk: “Importantly, USDA confirmed that there is no threat to human health and milk and dairy products remain safe to consume. Pasteurization (high heat treatment) kills harmful microbes and pathogens in milk, including the influenza virus.”
  • Progressive Farmer commented on how uncertainty and fear-based reactions have affected cattle markets.
  • Meanwhile HPAI continues to drive up egg prices, just in time for the Easter holiday. Food Manufacturing outlined the ongoing pressure on egg production. “Bird flu, weather and inflation have conspired to keep prices near record levels.”

Our Takeaway: Any disease jumping between species is a cause for concern, and with the ongoing price volatility in all of food production, the market really cannot handle extreme disruption of two food staples.

A Wave of Commitments

World Water Day on March 22 set the stage for conversations advocating for water stewardship, conservation and safety. Stories addressed everything from continued drought concerns affecting food production to companies under scrutiny for water pollution. Water has become an increasingly popular topic over the last couple of years as the discussion around climate change grows, leading to a rise in corporations (admittedly, some unexpected) announcing commitments to water stewardship. 

  • World Water Day: Getting fresh water is an increasingly tough task for many | The Associated Press
  • Millions are at risk using high arsenic water for cooking | ScienceDaily
  • More agrifood corporates committing to water stewardship targets | AgFunder News
  • Iowa’s drought conditions have farmers budgeting water use |
  • Monster Beverage Corporation’s commitment to water stewardship | Monster via 3BL Media
  • Campbell’s Napoleon, Ohio, plant facing wastewater discharge lawsuits | Food Processing
  • Tribe opposes bill aimed to shield processors from pollution-related incidents | Meatingplace
  • Bonus: Does hydrogen water live up to the hype? | The New York Times

Worth Reading

A-maize-ing Negotiations

This just in: After a prolonged trade dispute with the United States over importing genetically modified corn, Mexican authorities on March 27 decided to delay a related ban on the herbicide glyphosate. Reuters reported that Mexico rolled back the decision “after it was unable to identify a substitute.” Food Politics blogger Marion Nestle framed the Mexican perspective: “This dispute raises serious issues of national food sovereignty — who gets to decide how a country’s food system works.” Expect more discussion on this.

Nature Restoration Gets Shelved

Following persistent protests from farmers across the European Union, The Associated Press detailed the indefinite postponement of its Nature Restoration plan, which aimed to establish ambitious climate and biodiversity targets. The plan also sought to solidify the 27-nation coalition as the global point of reference on all climate issues. The deadlock, preceding the European Parliament election in June, highlights farmers’ significant political influence as they hold that environmental laws governing the way they work are ultimately pushing them toward bankruptcy.

A Mission for Emissions

Are efforts to decarbonize food production gaining momentum? While Food Processing explained how government funding will support the implementation of decarbonization technologies at facilities operated by Unilever and Kraft Heinz, Food Dive examined how two initiatives launched by Nestlé aim to eliminate carbon emissions from cocoa supply chains. Collectively, these projects are poised to optimize the use of natural resources, enhance biodiversity and provide scalable blueprints for clean manufacturing.

Yes-Yes Antibiotics

In July 2023, Tyson Foods ditched its “no antibiotics ever” label for some chicken, and now Panera and Chick-fil-A are following suit. Earlier this month, Nation’s Restaurant News summarized an internal Panera memo, which stated how the move enables supply flexibility and better pricing. Supply quality also was of noted importance to Chick-fil-A, which announced on March 22 that the chain’s chicken supply will be modified from no antibiotics ever (NAE) to no antibiotics important to human medicine (NAIHM). It seems Panera’s list of “no-nos” is a no go pre-IPO.

Artificially Illustrated
Between rising prices and $22B in holiday spending, the Easter Bunny’s rolling in the lettuce these days.

Midjourney illustration by Ryan Smith