“At the turn of the 21st Century and beyond, foodborne hazards are well known. People understand what you can’t see can kill you. It wasn’t always that way.”

Coral Beach, managing editor, Food Safety News

Keeping Stock of Coronavirus

Coronavirus continues to spread infection and fear throughout food production worldwide. On January 30, The World Health Organization declared the disease a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

  • In its January 29 coverage of a speech by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Reuters reported, “The virus has cast further doubt on China’s ability to buy $36.5 billion of U.S. agricultural goods in 2020.”
  • Food Business News quoted McCormick & Co. CEO Lawrence E. Kurzius: “Certainly, the reduction in people traveling, being able to go out to eat, being able to shop at the grocery stores is not a positive for our business.”
  • Ever the opportunists, the activist group PETA linked the spread of coronavirus to consumption of meat, and encouraged readers to “go vegan now.”
  • In a company earnings release published January 28, Starbucks acknowledged, “The dynamic situation our partners in China are navigating as health officials respond to the coronavirus.” The Wall Street Journal added Starbucks “faces a new threat to business in China after temporarily closing more than half of its stores.”
  • Citing a January 29 earnings call, Bloomberg noted, “All of McDonald’s restaurants in the cities of Wuhan, Ezhou, Huanggang, Qianjiang and Xiantao closed as of Jan. 24.”
  • Bloomberg attributed the “surging number” of Wuhan coronavirus cases in China to “wet markets, where sales of freshly slaughtered, unpackaged meat have become the focus of an investigation into an outbreak of a potentially deadly lung virus.”

What’s Working for Workers?

Workers and labor relations issues continue to be a persistent theme impacting food production. A number of important discussions will affect working conditions on farms, in production facilities and throughout distribution channels. Immigration, plant safety, farm worker conditions and child labor took the spotlight this week.

  • On January 27, Service Employees Union International President Rocio Sáenz called the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of income-based restrictions on immigrant visas “cruel and inhumane.”
  • On January 18, Western Growers Association broke down the new joint-employer requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • Meatingplace spoke to a representative from The American Federation of Government Employees who sounded off about USDA’s recent inquiry regarding contracts for food safety inspectors.
  • Civil Eats discussed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, and cited its potential to “stabilize the agricultural labor force and provide legal status to more than a million undocumented farmworkers.”
  • The New York Times addressed the 13,253 child-labor violations Massachusetts leveled against Chipotle that resulted in more than $1.35 million in fines.

A Public Hero

On January 28, PBS debuted The Poison Squad, a documentary about chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley, on its American Experience series. The film describes a time near the turn of the last century when the government did not regulate food production. Dr. Wiley recruited a team of volunteers who consumed potentially harmful food additives to study their effects and, in doing so, gained celebrity status. Their efforts eventually led to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of the FDA.

  • The same day, Eater posted an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum, the author of the corresponding book: “Today, the European system is precautionary, this appears to be dangerous; the American system is more, people aren’t dropping in the streets so we’re going to permit it.”
  • On January 29, Food Safety News editor Coral Beach called the piece “a provocative piece that will stun you.”
  • Modern Farmer synopsized the documentary and listed some of the preservatives commonly used at the time — including borax and formaldehyde — adding, “thankfully, nobody died from the experiments.”

“Every year, Americans spend something like $35 billion on vitamins, minerals, botanicals and various other substances that are touted as health-giving but mostly do nothing at all. Nothing at all!”

Tamar Haspel, columnist, The Washington Post

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Food Industry Flippy-flop

On January 28, Food & Wine reported Flippy, the burger-flipping robot from Miso Robotics, had received a functional redesign to better suit it for work in high-volume restaurant kitchens and close quarters. Miso Robotics CEO Buck Jordan told the publication, “[Flippy ROAR] is half the cost, zero footprint, and can now cook more than a dozen foods.”

Chicken Little

On January 28, Bloomberg reported that chickens under 4.25 pounds are in short supply thanks to 2019’s fast-food chicken sandwich wars. Animal-protein economist Will Sawyer, told the publication “whatever demand growth we might have on smaller breasts, there’s no new supply to meet that demand … Everyone wants a bite out of that market.”

Supplementing Misinformation

“Supplements have very few benefits and some serious risks,” Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel wrote, “so why do Americans spend $35 billion on them every year?” Haspel spoke to various health professionals and concluded that “people feel comfortable with herbs and other botanicals, and they feel empowered by the idea that they make these choices for themselves.” Haspel was reluctant to dismiss supplements across the board, but suggests instead putting your supplement budget toward nutrient-rich whole foods like lentils.

Plan(e)t Health

On January 27, USDA declared 2020 as the “International Year of Plant Health.” The agency warns, “plants are under attack by invasive pests … that leaves millions of people worldwide without enough food to eat and seriously damages agriculture.” To help negate this, USDA suggests keeping an eye out for unusual signs of pests or disease, gathering firewood responsibly, contacting your local authorities before buying seeds or plants online from abroad, and declaring agricultural items to U.S. Customs and Border Protection upon return from international travel.

All You Should Eat

The Hustle broke down the economics of all-you-can-eat-buffets in the January 28 edition of its daily newsletter. Buffets operate on very thin margins and leverage labor costs, foot traffic, volume of food and waste reduction to ensure profitability. Even if you follow the instructions in their name and eat all you can, “turns out, it’s harder to ‘beat’ the buffet than you might think.”

Not So New Food Economy

As of January 30, The New Food Economy will henceforth be known as The Counter. In their explanation for the shift, the editors explained: “In 2020 the new food economy isn’t really new anymore … and the broad, transformational values that once felt niche to some … are no longer fringe concerns. They’ve gone fully mainstream, and the stories we cover make front-page news.”

Bipartisan Candy

The New York Times breaking news reporter Neil Vigdor posted a lively read last week on the snack situation for U.S. senators during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. “It consists of milk, water and candy, the only food allowed onto the Senate floor under the chamber’s staid rules, which don’t allow senators to drink coffee, either,” Vigdor explains. Senator Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) keeps the stash in his drawer and shares with parties on both sides of the aisle. Hooray bi-partisanship!

No, You Can’t Get a 6-pack of Coronavirus

A number of publications have reported on a disheartening trend reported in Google Trends. A statistically significant amount of people all over the world have been searching for the terms “Corona virus” and “beer virus” since January 19 in what looks like a case of horrific misidentification. This is not something marketing classes prepare you for.