The most influential voices in food production touched on two persistent and contentious issues, while calling some shots for the new year.

  • Workers: Who’s the boss?
  • 2024 policy: What’s the plan?
  • Alt proteins: Where to next?

Who Works for Who?

The workforce is the backbone of the food and agriculture industry and has been a focal point of regulation under the Biden administration. While hourly wage hikes have mostly fallen to states and companies, the federal government has attempted to redefine key terms around employer-employee relationships.

  • The minimum wage rose for workers in 22 states, effective January 1 (CBS). The Economic Policy Institute broke down how the increases will actually affect worker pay.
  • Nation’s Restaurant News highlighted the effects of California’s higher minimum wage for delivery workers: drivers at hundreds of Pizza Hut locations are being laid off early this year.
  • On January 9, the U.S. Department of Labor updated its rule on what makes a worker an independent contractor instead of an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The rule considers employer relationship, financial stake, permanence, employer control, importance to an employer’s business and worker skill.
  • Delivery companies are often accused of misclassifying “gig workers” as contractors. DoorDash responded that the rule will not change its operations: “Millions of Americans choose to dash precisely because they want an option to work independently and differently from employment.”
  • The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union welcomed the update as a way for gig workers to get “the same rights, benefits, and protections as other workers.”
  • On January 12, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to scuttle a National Labor Relations Board rule defining “joint employer” — a term most often associated with franchise business structures.
  • The National Restaurant Association cautioned, “This rule risks imposing onerous regulatory burdens and increased legal liabilities on restaurants large and small that could limit entrepreneurship and dampen economic growth in communities across the country.” And the National Retail Federation echoed the sentiment on behalf of its constituents.

“Consumers most likely to be interested in sustainability are highly desirable shoppers for the food industry, as they spend more on groceries online and overall.”

Andy Harig, Vice President for Tax, Trade, Sustainability & Policy Development, FMI

Make No Little Plans

With the new year, we’ve noted an uptick in policy play-calling as organizations and companies map out their agendas for 2024 and beyond. We’ll check back later in the year and see what panned out.

  • On behalf of independent retailers, the National Grocery Association set its 2024 policy agenda to focus on antitrust reform and credit card swipe fee reduction.
  • FMI posted some rather opaque guidance, encouraging food manufacturers to advance sustainability: “Consumers most likely to be interested in sustainability are highly desirable shoppers for the food industry, as they spend more on groceries online and overall.” You can dig in and download FMI’s latest thinking on sustainability strategies.
  • Foodservice Director outlined the plans of several states to re-institute the free school lunch program, which was halted at the federal level last year after pandemic-relief programs expired. On a similar note, U.S. News & World Report covered how the USDA has allocated $2.5 billion in grocery benefits for children this summer. Fifteen states turned down the handout, a move that New York Times opinion columnist Charles M. Blow called “shocking political callousness.”
  • Despite House Agriculture Committee Chair G.T. Thompson’s optimism that the 2023 2024 Farm Bill would pass in March, Politico explained how a third continuing resolution to keep the U.S. government funded could put the bill’s passage in peril. Again.
  • On the stewardship front, GreenBiz offered advice to food manufacturers when considering a deforestation policy, referencing a scorecard put together by sustainability nonprofit Ceres.
  • Profit and sustainability are themes weaving through corporate goal-setting for 2024, as evidenced by reporting on Mondelez (Triple Pundit), Papa Johns (Nation’s Restaurant News) and PepsiCo (Progressive Grocer).

Alt Protein: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The alt-protein sector (both plant-based and cell-cultivated products) remains quite active. New products and processes are tempered by setbacks and unfavorable legislation. Word of the week: mycelium.

Worth Reading

Trust the Process?

On January 10, The Wall Street Journal detailed how regulators are reviewing the impact ultra-processed foods can have on dietary health. Many large manufacturers oppose the prospect of restrictive guidelines, as such policies could influence grocery sales, U.S. food programs and products available in schools. In response, the Consumer Brands Association defended several benefits the organization finds in processed foods: “It’s time to get real about processing and what it does for our food supply.”

Gut Health Gets Hip

Eater examined how packaging upgrades for lactase enzyme (e.g., Lactaid) and other digestive enzyme herbal supplements are making lactose intolerance a social norm. While consumers can now pack their pockets with “stylish” miniature bottles and wallet-sized pill sleeves, some restaurants are filling gumball dispensers with individually wrapped doses. These novelties aren’t just enhancing cultural awareness; they’re also bridging the gap between comfort and cool.

Planet-Friendly Pringles

Food Ingredients First shared how a $110 million investment in packaging technology has enabled the launch of a Pringles tube made entirely of recyclable materials. The packaging, which is entirely composed of recycled paper, a paper base and recyclable plastic lid, allows Pringles (and consumers) to be more environmentally responsible without compromising the shape or freshness of their beloved potato crisps. Don’t you love it when food gives back to Mother Earth?

No Service? No Problem.

Farm Progress explained how an agreement between SpaceX and John Deere will integrate the aerospace company’s Starlink network into compatible John Deere machines. Structured to maximize connectivity for farmers with internet coverage challenges, the solution will optimize everything from remote diagnostics and real-time data sharing to self-repair solutions and inter-machine communications. A limited release in the United States and Brazil is planned for later this year.

Artificially Illustrated
Plant-based cow at auction
It’s been years and the market’s still trying to evaluate plant-based beef.
Credit: Midjourney illustration by Ryan J. Smith