In a change of pace, an increasing share discussion did not focus exclusively on the coronavirus crisis. But even for other topics, the pandemic serves as a constant backdrop. Sick workers and shuttered processing plants continued to cripple the nation’s meat supply, as plant-based meat alternative brands ramped up their retail strategies. Meanwhile, we detected an uptick in conversations on food safety, reprising pre-coronavirus topics and raising new ones.

Also, as a PSA: Mother’s Day is this Sunday.

“With health officials now focused (understandably) on the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be interesting to see if foodborne illnesses decline in 2020.”

Bill Marler, food safety attorney (Marler Blog)

Safety Stalled

Food safety topics triggered a range of conversations, covering findings from a 2019 Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) report, a U.S. Department of Justice decision levying the second-largest food safety fine and safety reminders for Mother’s Day.

  • According to a May 1 CDC statement, progress in controlling major foodborne pathogens has “stalled” in the United States, signaling the Healthy People 2030 reduction targets will not be met. Data from FoodNet for 2019 shows increased infections from Campylobacter, Cyclospora, E. coli, Vibrio and Yersinia.
  • Food safety attorney Bill Marler tweeted in response, “2019 was not the best year in Food Safety … With COVID-19, what will 2020 bring?”
  • On May 4, Food Processing reported that Blue Bell will pay more than $19 million, the second-largest food safety fine, for a 2015 listeria outbreak that killed three people.
  • BarfBlog author Doug Powell described the criminal charges against former Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse: “He repeatedly minimized, ignored or tried to cover up the problem products … despite concerns raised by company employees and customers.” Kruse faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
  • Whether gifting food or cooking this weekend, Food Safety News urged everyone to practice good food safety practices when pampering moms on Mother’s Day.
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Spring Is Plant-based Growing Season

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, plant-based protein products enjoyed a super-sized share of discussion, media coverage and criticism. After a brief hiatus, the fake meat media machine seems to have reawakened, perhaps to shake the notion that sales have slowed. Or perhaps because they see opportunity in real meat’s challenges.

  • After promising plant-based Italian sausage and bratwurst alternatives by summer, Kellogg’s entry into the alternative protein brand Incogmeato announced a delay, due to the coronavirus crisis, in an earnings call on May 5 (FoodBev Media). Yes, “Incogmeato” is a corporate dad joke.
  • Also on May 5, Supermarket News reported that 1,700 Kroger stores will start to carry the Impossible Burger. Impossible Foods President Dennis Woodside told the retail publication he expects Impossible’s retail footprint to increase “50-fold.”
  • The Financial Times shared Nielsen data that noted a 200% increase in sales of meat substitutes compared with the same week in April last year. The article also contrasted this with recent 32% and 14% decreases in pork and beef production, respectively.
  • Demonstrating a standard mainstream media take, Vox’s Sigal Samuel posited two “likely” reasons why meat alternatives are faring well during the pandemic: “Shortages of animal products in stores and a growing awareness of the problems with our animal agriculture system.”
  • According to a May 5 Reuters article, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown announced a seasonal pricing strategy this summer — along with frozen value packs of Beyond Burgers — to lure customers to try the product, which typically sells for 2 to 3 times the price of ground beef. The same day, Bloomberg reported on Beyond’s solid quarterly earnings, largely due to a strong retail presence.
  • Hormel-owned progressive meat brand Applegate took a dig at “questionable ingredients found in heavily processed plant-based protein alternatives,” referring its 118,000 followers to its Well-Carved line of blended products.

How Do You Like Your Meat Supplies? Rare?

Meat and poultry processors continued to deal with shortages of workers due to COVID-19 infections. As the kink in the supply chain started to affect consumer-facing channels, influential figures weighed in on the structure of the meat industry.

  • Nation’s Restaurant News reported that Wendy’s has removed beef items from some menus due to the chain’s reliance on never-frozen beef. With Wendy’s short, the internet was long on “Where’s the beef?” wisecracks.
  • On May 6, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sent letters to governors with guidelines for how states should abide by President Trump’s April 28 Executive Order. Agri-Pulse reported that Perdue predicted operations to resume in “a week to 10 days.”
  • Vegan-oriented finance group Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) tweeted, “Trump’s decision to keep meat plants open was a missed opportunity to elevate worker conditions and mitigate climate risk.”
  • CDC reported on May 1 that 4,913 processing plant workers (roughly 3%) had fallen ill and 20 had died. Agri-Pulse noted that those numbers did not include data from Indiana or Minnesota.
  • Grocers Costco and Kroger limited how many meat items consumers can purchase at a time.
  • Feedstuffs reported that exports of pork and beef approached record levels, despite shortages in the United States.
  • Between April 29 and May 5, Senators, industry group R-CALF and 11 attorneys general all wrote to authorities requesting investigations into consolidation in the meat industry and possible price manipulation. On May 6, President Trump directed the Department of Justice to investigate the situation.

“All at once, the whole country is learning how essential these workers are. Without them, the whole system would grind to a halt.”

Helena Bottemiller Evich, reporter, Politico (Twitter)

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Reminder: Sunday Is Mother’s Day

Ahead of Mother’s Day, U.S. Foods surveyed mothers across the country — even comparing results to non-quarantined years — and found that the majority would spring for takeout or delivery.

Supersize Frites

Belgapom, Belgium’s potato processing association called on the potato-loving nation to eat twice as many fried potatoes as usual, in order to mitigate a coronavirus-related glut (NPR).

Sonny’s Relief in a Box

USDA has made progress on the “Farm to Families Food Box” that will give away boxes of surplus produce, dairy and meat products to needy families across the country. Agri-Pulse reported the USDA has awarded some of the first contracts for this first-of-its-kind program. The Food & Environment Reporting Network tweeted, “Perdue finally gets his ‘harvest box,'” citing the agency’s widely-ridiculed proposal from March 2019.

Who Awards the Award-givers?

As restaurants have adjusted service or closed down during the coronavirus crisis, fine dining — and fine dining awards Michelin and James Beard — has been upended. On May 6, Eater reported: “For the organizations whose purpose was to exalt these restaurants with awards and rankings, carrying on as usual is no longer possible, especially as the collapse of [the] restaurant industry has led many to question the utility of awards in the first place.”

Sink o’ Deliveries

Describing the food delivery scene in cities across the country, Vice presented a litany of anecdotes contributing to the “sh*t show” that was the Cinco de Mayo during the pandemic. Delivery gig workers from Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash, and PostMates universally described a chaotic, crowded scene in their attempts to deliver Mexican food to customers.

We All Scream for Biaxial Rankings

On May 5, Los Angeles Times food writer Lucas Kwan Peterson mused, “I bring you the infallible, completely factual and 100% correct Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Power Rankings. Yes, even our nation’s most adored 420-loving capitalists must eventually fall under the tires of the Power Rankings cement truck.”