Last night, President Biden stirred discussions about workers by announcing plans for a national vaccination policy — a topic that already raised concern throughout food production when it was limited to a few companies. The bureaucratic wheels must grind before anything becomes official, so expect a summary of spirited discussion next week.

The short week brought no shortage of other developments in food, beverage and agriculture. We took a shotgun approach this week, with quick coverage of:

  • Evolving claims about ingredients and labeling
  • Recurring themes in international trade
  • Unjamming kinks in the meat supply chain
  • Thanking workers

Sticky Subject

Labeling and ingredients are the basis for so many influential conversations about defining “good” food. From health benefits to sustainability claims, constant conversations (and bickering) online — in the media and courts — exert outsized influence on consumer perception of the quality and benefits any given food delivers.

  • USDA announced a comment period on labeling of cell-cultured products derived from animal cells. This comes after a 2019 rule establishing joint oversight between the FDA and USDA. The agency wants to hear from stakeholders to determine the best steps forward as it begins the process of what cell-cultured meat labeling will say. This should get interesting.
  • New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs explained an uptick in litigation by consumer groups over food labeling claims. The lawsuits, which escalated from 45 filed in 2010 to 220 filed in 2020, largely target “big” manufacturers making sustainability claims about their products.
  • An article in Food Business News described the challenges of food coloring amid increasing consumer preference for non-synthetic food dyes.
  • AgWeek published a quiz testing your knowledge of food labeling lingo. If you need help, drop us a line.

Border Crossings

International trade, a fundamental component of today’s food system, was a topic of intense focus throughout the Trump administration, when talk of tariffs on Chinese goods regularly made front-page news. While the discussions have settled down, some noteworthy changes, complaints and comparisons happened this week:

  • In the wake of Hurricane Ida, buyers of American corn, soybeans and wheat exports experienced major delays and uncertain prices (Bloomberg).
  • Reuters reported that China imported 9% less meat in August. Prices there plunged as pork producers recovered from African swine fever.
  • At the same time, U.S. beef exports in July were 45% higher than a year ago, driven by demand largely from Asian markets (USMEF).
  • The Florida Department of Agriculture expressed concern that importing Mexican fruits costs the state thousands of jobs and nearly $4 billion in lost revenue (ABC7, Sarasota).
  • Citing destructive fishing practices and human rights violations, Greenpeace USA pleaded with U.S. authorities to block imports from a prominent Taiwanese seafood producer.

Where’s the Meat?

In a report published on September 8, the Biden administration pinned blame for high meat prices on “a lack of competition at a key bottleneck point in the meat supply chain: meat-processing.” Meat accounted for half of food-at-home price increases during the pandemic, but the consequences are hitting food-away-from home as well — and sparking competition.

  • The report further described a “dynamic of a hyper-consolidated pinch point in the supply chain [that] raises real questions about pandemic profiteering.”
  • Last week, the National Farmers Union requested that USDA to follow up on its $500 million fund to expand competition in the processing sector. The fund was established in July.
  • North American Meat Institute COO Mark Dopp objected that labor shortages are the real culprit: “Issuing inflammatory statements that ignore the fundamentals of how supply and demand affects markets accomplishes nothing.”
  • Regardless of where blame lies, supply chain issues continue to plague foodservice and retail channels. Bloomberg reported that KFC has stopped ad campaigns for its chicken tender products due to short supplies.
  • Looking to cash in on the shortages, Impossible Foods debuted a nugget that The Washington Posts’ Emily Heil claimed “actually tastes like chicken.” At this point, hasn’t that description kind of lost all meaning?

USDA to the Rescue

In honor of Labor Day, the USDA announced $700 million in aid for farm and food processing workers affected by COVID-19. The funds amount to roughly $600 for each worker.

  • United Farm Workers Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres commented: “As we honor the contributions of workers across our nation, let’s show gratitude to the men and women who feed America and the world.” (USDA)
  • United Food and Commercial Workers International Union thanked the administration for the compensation: “Meatpacking workers have had to use their own money to pay for personal protective equipment to stay safe on the job, shoulder the burden of increased childcare costs, take on expenses from COVID-19 testing and quarantining, and much more.”

“Food, that inanimate object with which we are most intimately connected, is challenging not only what we think about human health but how we use science to go about understanding the world.”

Amos Zeeberg, Journalist (Aeon)

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Taking a Jab at the Unvaccinated

Yesterday evening, September 9, President Biden directed OSHA to require all companies with more than 100 employees to obtain proof of vaccination or weekly COVID tests from workers. Biden explained: “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. … despite the fact that for almost five months free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot.”

Battle of the Bugs

Modern Farmer reported that researchers at Penn State University have figured out how to use aphids’ (small sap-sucking insects) fear of ladybugs against them. Previous research revealed aphids detect ladybugs by their smell, leading researchers to isolate various odors emitted by ladybugs. When exposed to each odor individually, “aphids had the strongest response to methoxypyrazines, such as isopropyl methoxypyrazine, isobutyl methoxypyrazine and sec-butyl methoxypyrazine.” Obviously …

Noodling About Nutrition

In a 6,200 word ramble, author Amos Zeeberg explored the evolving human quest for better nutrition. Zeeberg theorized that nutrition science started when we evolved “from eating enough to eating the right things” and touches on everything from treating scurvy to Soylent (a meal replacement solution) to the most recent advances in clear whey protein powder.

Changes ‘From Menu to Tip’

The New York Times’ food desk contributors collaborated to share many of the ways that restaurants, and the experience of dining out altogether, have changed since the start of the pandemic. The article covered everything from the chicken sandwich wars and QR code menus to pizza dough reformulations, and how the restaurant industry had to think quickly and adapt.