May 20, 2022
Politics on the Plate
Programming note: Friday by Noon will return on June 3.
Politics and policy led the way for the top conversations in food production:
- President Biden stepped in to solve an infant formula shortage.
- Leaders raised concerns about global supplies of wheat.
- Food brands took on political positions.
Formula for Trouble
A shortage of infant formula is forcing parents to take extreme measures to keep their babies fed. While the shortage has largely been attributed to a February recall, a plant closure and supply chain disruptions, there’s much more to the story.
- In an explainer piece, The Hustle attributed the shortage to additional factors including pandemic hoarding, higher birth rates, strict U.S. regulation and high import taxes.
- Politico linked the shortage to the federal nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC). The program is the largest purchaser of formula in the U.S., and due to how contracts are awarded, two companies provide 90% of the formula for infants receiving program benefits.
- The Biden administration announced several actions to ease the shortage, including reopening a manufacturing plant and increasing imports. On May 18, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up production and authorized flights to import supplies from overseas (The Associated Press).
- Abbott Laboratories said it could resume formula production at its Michigan manufacturing plant in two weeks, with store shelves restocked in “several weeks” after reaching an agreement with the FDA on the steps needed to reopen the plant (The New York Times).
- Nestlé committed to flying in extra formula from Switzerland and the Netherlands, in addition to ramping up formula production to alleviate the severe shortage (The Wall Street Journal).
- The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee grilled FDA Commissioner Robert Califf in a hearing on May 19, reported CNBC. Lawmakers criticized the FDA for “failing to promptly investigate a whistleblower complaint sent in October,” when an Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan was first accused of safety violations.
Amber Waves of Pain
Discussions about corn and soy tend to overshadow all other crops, but recent developments in worldwide wheat production have made headlines in the U.S. and abroad. It’s been a hot topic since Russia invaded Ukraine, as the two countries combined make up almost 30% of world wheat exports, but wheat issues extend far beyond that region.
- An early May Wall Street Journal report warned, “crop shortfalls will keep prices high, imperiling food security in places like the Middle East and North Africa, where surging food prices have contributed to political instability.”
- A more recent report from Food Ingredients First summarized how climate conditions in India and France are further choking global wheat production. A USDA report complemented this, saying that world wheat stocks will drop to a six-year low.
- Meanwhile, in India, the government has halted all exports of wheat except to areas of high food insecurity (Bloomberg).
- On May 12, Reuters reported that Argentina became the first country to authorize planting GMO wheat. The new seeds are drought- and herbicide-tolerant and will be available for the next planting season.
- Closer to home, the Grain Foods Foundation canceled its campaign for a checkoff program, which would authorize the USDA to tax wheat production to fund advertising for the commodity. The group called the proposal “a distraction” (Food Processing).
- Finally, Iowa native Alexis Taylor lit up the ag internet after President Biden nominated her for USDA under secretary for trade and foreign agriculture affairs. Groups representing pork, soybeans, rice, milk, and, of course, wheat posted statements praising her nomination.
Infant formula wasn’t the only food and beverage news on Capitol Hill this week. Politics motivated several prominent developments in the industry, from rethinking Russia to midterm elections.
- McDonald’s has long served as a bellwether for the viability of American businesses in rival countries. After 32 years in Russia, the chain announced that it will sell all 850 locations to a current licensee in response to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. In a letter, CEO Chris Kempczinski cited the company’s core value: “do the right thing.”
- While many brands have paused or siloed Russian operations, the burger chain’s complete withdrawal marks a turning point in “burger diplomacy.” Washington Post food critic Tim Carman elaborated on the historical importance of McDonald’s entry in the market during the Cold War.
- Meanwhile, Democratic legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives voted to establish a special investigator for consolidation in the U.S. meat industry (Agri-Pulse). The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association objected that the bill would be a “confusing bureaucratic mess” instead of “focusing on adequate staffing and funding for the woefully under-resourced Packers and Stockyards Division at USDA.”
- Dr. Mehmet Oz sought nomination for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary on May 17 (results are still pending). Amanda Zluckyj of The Farmer’s Daughter rebuffed the TV personality as “a leader in demonizing modern agriculture.” Should Dr. Oz make it to the Senate, he’ll work alongside politicians who accused him of “peddling … snake oil” diet solutions in June 2014.
- Starbucks jumped into a hot-button political issue on May 16 by committing to cover travel costs for workers who lose access to abortion services if/when Roe v. Wade is overturned. Nation’s Restaurant News noted that the chain has taken a similar stance on gender-affirmation surgery.
If you’ve perused Instagram lately, surely you’ve seen short videos of knives plunging into realistic-looking food sculptures. Bon Appetit explored this trend: “It’s not surprising that these playful images, which are all art imitating life, took off in a culture underpinned by tweeters besotted by the meme-ification of, well, everything. Combine that with roughly two years of confinement to home and screens due to the pandemic, and you get a sculpted food obsession spectrum.”
Eater New York covered food delivery company Grubhub’s May 17 free lunch attempt, which proved to be quite a disaster. Shortly after announcing free lunch to “give back” (up to $15, not including tax, tip and delivery), Grubhub’s server crashed, and frustrated customers flooded social media with criticism. “Who at Grubhub thought it was a good idea to promise 8 million New Yorkers free lunch during a 3 hr period,” asked one Twitter user.
Avoidant & Restrictive — It’s a Thing
The Washington Post’s Susan Shain explored avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which identifies “picky eaters.” The article explains that people with ARFID eat fewer than 20 foods, mostly carbs and dairy. An eating behavior psychologist explained that “nature, rather than nurture, is probably to blame, with potential factors including heightened sensory and disgust sensitivity, as well as cognitive rigidity.”
High-pressure processing (HPP) has proven to be invaluable for foods and beverages that typically wouldn’t be cooked. Modern Farmer explained some of the benefits: “HPP extends ‘sell-by’ dates — almost five-fold for coconut water and 30-fold for raw juices — without compromising freshness or nutritional properties.”
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