The most influential voices in food production embraced some heady topics this week:

  • Meat and its imitators fought for supremacy. Or at least relevance. 
  • Migrant workers remain a political hot potato. And an expedient solution. 
  • Spring brings some major food holidays. So that’s fun.

Pretty, Pretty Powerful

Protein, both real-deal animal sourced and plant-based alternatives, drove discussion this week. The Annual Meat Conference in Nashville provided a showcase for packers and processors to garner headlines. Meanwhile, two constants remain in the alternative protein front: constant reinvention and constant criticism for ultra-processing.

  • Meat’s still mighty. That’s the sentiment of the 19th annual Power of Meat study, which The Meat Institute published March 18. Despite fewer pounds sold at retail for the third year in a row, topline findings included a strong 98% of U.S. households purchasing meat and the number of people seeking to reduce meat consumption has fallen 20% since 2020. 
  • That report has been sliced and diced many ways, including an infographic and a top ten list of key findings. 
  • Supermarket News commented on the report, focusing on the generational differences in meat consumption: “Gen Xers were the biggest meat eaters, accounting for 32% of sales, while Baby Boomers were the most frequent meat purchasers at 53 times per year. Meanwhile, Millennials spent the most on average per purchase at just under $17 per purchase.” 
  • On the alternative-protein front, Impossible Foods launched “meatier” red-colored packaging at Expo West. Impossible explained, “On-shelf, the bold red packaging reinforces the fact Impossible products taste, cook and satisfy like meat from animals.” If it were only that simple.
  • A GlobalData consumer survey suggested that alt-protein brands need to pick their battles. “To overcome their tarnished ultra-processed image while still delivering sensory enjoyment and price, brands will have to invest in food technology,” recommended GlobalData analyst Hannah Cleland. 
  • AgFunder News summarized a Good Food Institute webinar that addressed the complex conundrum cell-cultured meats are facing: “With a 78% drop in funding in 2023, and two major players pausing plans to open large-scale commercial facilities in the near future, how will cultivated meat transition from a loss-making novelty served at a handful of high-end restaurants to a commercially viable alternative to animal agriculture?”
  • Splitting the difference, BOTH touted its USDA-approved 50/50 beef and vegetable burger as the “closest to meat in terms of consumer satisfaction.” (Food Ingredients First)

Our Takeaway: Protein remains the macronutrient of the decade, so this competition for attention and dollars will continue. But whether any alternative gains traction will be decided soon as investment dollars are grinding to a halt.

Artificially Illustrated
Cows with guitars in an alley
Nü Metal is so passé, is Nü Meat here to stay?
Image generated with Midjourney

Importing a Workforce

The food supply chain is only as strong as its workforce. With unemployment at 3.9%, the workforce is thin in much of the country, particularly rural areas. Migrant workers are increasingly being considered to meet employment shortfalls at farms and factories.

  • The Associated Press’ Melina Walling explained how and why farmers have increasingly turned to immigrants on seasonal visas to meet their labor demands.
  • In a March 7 report, a bipartisan group from the House Agriculture Committee recommended 20 updates to the H-2A visa program to boost farmers’ use of guest workers. The committee tallied supportive statements from 10 industry groups.
  • One key aspect that the committee examined was how this model fails producers with year-round labor shortages. National Milk Producers Federation Executive Vice President Paul Beilberg commented, “This is really about food security. … Cows are milked every day.”
  • Meanwhile, Tyson Foods looked to another immigrant population to fill its worker shortfall — asylum-seeking refugees. Bloomberg quoted Garrett Dolan from Tyson’s human resources department, who said the company already employs 42,000 immigrant workers nationwide and “would like to employ another 42,000 if we could find them.”
  • The timing of Tyson’s plans to hire asylum-seekers coincided with layoffs of 1,200 workers in Iowa. Fox News captured blowback from conservative investor Bill Flaig: “We believe Tyson’s management has blundered into a political minefield (and should have known better).”
  • Another tactic to meet worker shortfalls has emerged on college campuses: certificates in butchery. Meatingplace interviewed Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, about the program at Oregon State University.

Our Takeaway: Food production often demands hard work for low wages in hard-to-reach places. It’s not surprising that finding workers is difficult. What’s even more difficult is finding a politically viable solution. Visa reform has been stalled since the Trump administration and will remain so as long as the former president continues campaigning against immigration.

These Are the Days

From national and religious holidays to simple awareness days, food is central to our celebrations, and food marketers have several food-centric days to focus on in late March. Whether supporting an industry or gathering in holiday celebration, acknowledging where food comes from and how it gets to your plate is a central theme to springtime food marketing efforts. Presented in 2024 calendar order:

  • Celebrating innovation and inclusion on International Women’s Day | Progressive Grocer
  • USDA celebrates second National Biobased Products Day | USDA
  • How to plan for successful fasting during Ramadan | CNN
  • Corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day may serve up some nutritious benefits | Fox News
  • Global Recycling Day: What federal policy can do now to help long-term recycling rates | Consumer Brands Association
  • National Ag Day [was] Tuesday, events planned across the country | Brownfield Ag News
  • Build the ultimate Passover chocolate cake with coffee-soaked matzo | Chowhound
  • 2024 Easter spending expected to top $22 Billion | National Retail Federation
  • Spring holidays are for family feasts, not pesky bacteria guests | USDA

Worth Reading

March Milk Madness

The Washington Post posted its own version of basketball brackets. In this interactive tournament, dairy milk competes against its plant-based impersonators. “We pitted dairy milk against plant milk [sic] to see how the beverages compare in various categories, including nutrition, cost, environmental impact and even how well they make frothy coffee.” It seemed like a fair-ish comparison until it got to the “added sugar” section, in which the authors swapped unflavored milk for chocolate milk to give plant drinks the edge.

‘Healthy’ Debate

Amid ongoing calls for transparency, Food Ingredients First highlighted investment group ShareAction’s accusation against Nestlé for offering an inadequate number of healthy products. Claiming it doesn’t use phrases such as “healthy” and “unhealthy,” Nestlé denied the accusations and set ambitious targets to increase sales of nutritious products by 2030. Despite setting lofty targets and governments imposing taxes to curb public health spending costs, disagreements loom regarding effectiveness of nutrition measures and the need for stricter commitments.

Behold: The $6 Berry

Do consumers care about taste more than visual appeal? The Wall Street Journal explored how some producers are leveraging unique genetics, diligent farming strategies and strict inspections to harvest fruits and vegetables that offer unprecedented flavor in unconventional shapes. Delectable variations of berries, apples, citrus, tomatoes and beets are flying off the shelves and into the mouths of consumers who covet them as healthy snacks or key components of home-cooked meals. Turns out, appearance isn’t everything.

Yes, ‘Manure Management’ is a Thing

AgFunder News published an interview with Chris Adamo, Danone North America vice president of regenerative ag policy, focused on strategies for methane reduction. In a fascinating conversation laden with phrases like “cow burps” and “manure injection equipment,” Adamo discusses the multiple levers the company will need to pull to reduce GHG emissions from its milk production by 30% by 2030. Among other initiatives, the company is asking farmers to voluntarily engage in its regenerative ag program and helping farmers access public funding.