An Urban's Rural View

A Battlefield Report From the Food Wars

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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If you want to know who's winning the food-and-agriculture wars, read food company press releases:

-- Subway said it will take the dough strengthener azodicarbonamide out of its bread even though the ingredient is "extremely common" and "fully approved and recognized as safe by the FDA" (http://tiny.cc/…).

-- Delhaize America, owner of Food Lion supermarkets, said it's encouraging pork suppliers to stop housing sows in gestation stalls (http://tiny.cc/…).

-- Kraft Foods (http://tiny.cc/…) said it's taking artificial preservatives out of Kraft Singles cheese slices.

-- Chick-fil-A (http://tiny.cc/…) said it will only sell chicken raised without antibiotics in all of its restaurants within five years.

These are just examples that popped up in the last 10 days. The fast-flowing river of releases in previous months included announcements that genetically engineered ingredients are coming out of Cheerios and tartrazine dyes (Yellow No. 5 and 6) out of cartoon-character-shaped Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

"Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry," anyone? That was DuPont's slogan from the 1930s through the 1980s. No company would dare use it today.

"Natural" is in, technologically improved out. Even "The Miracles of Science," DuPont's current slogan, probably risks a boycott from some consumers.

And make no mistake, it's consumers that this is all about. Activists may lead the charge and, indeed, a food blogger (http://foodbabe.com/…) had petitioned for both the Chick-fil-A and Subway changes. But companies don't submit because they think the activists are right.

Privately -- and sometimes publicly, as in Subway's release -- they disagree. The point is that whatever the companies think, they submit when they believe submitting will help sales. Activists, farmers and politicians can have their say but it's what consumers think that matters.

As Kraft Foods put it in its press release on Singles, "We know families today want convenient foods that have no artificial preservatives and a simpler, more recognizable ingredient list, and Kraft is working to deliver more of these options for some of our most beloved brands."

Once one company acts, it can touch off a chain reaction of competitors that feel pressured to do the same. In February 2012 McDonald's said it would work with suppliers to eliminate gestation crates, just weeks after Smithfield Foods and Hormel had moved in the same direction. Within two months Burger King and Wendy's had joined the parade. And that was just the beginning.

Judging from the timeline on the Humane Society's website (http://tiny.cc/…), you have to wonder if there's a major food or restaurant company left that's still planning to buy pork from suppliers that use gestation crates. As best I can tell Domino's may be the most significant holdout, Papa John's fell in line in November.

To be sure, the pressure to conform varies from issue to issue. For all that the controversies over food chemicals and gestation crates and biotech ingredients have in common, they resonate differently with consumers.

Genetic engineering, for example, generates fierce resistance among some but far from most Americans. We still buy what's on the supermarket shelves, 70% of which has genetically engineered ingredients. So far, at least, the caravan of companies following Chipotle and Whole Foods into anti-biotech land has been short.

In the wake of Chick-fil-A's announcement the big question is how the antibiotics-in-animal agriculture will play with consumers. I've blogged on this more than once recently (see here http://tiny.cc/…, here http://tiny.cc/… and here http://tiny.cc/…) and will examine it again soon.

This much is clear: If Chick-fil-A's competitors decide the "Eat More Chikin'" chain has read the market correctly, the next wave of press releases could portend big changes for livestock raisers.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanity@hotmail.com

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Curt Zingula
2/15/2014 | 9:41 PM CST
With show-boaters like "Dr." Oz scare-mongering the impressionable plus General Mills, Chipolte's et.al using rope-a-dope marketing, organic gets the boost it can't earn without smear. However, the economics of spendable income rather than manure fertilizer will be organic's ball and chain. Yes Tom there is income potential with organic production but eventually it will be like every other occupation where success hinges on being better than the rest.
tom vogel
2/15/2014 | 8:00 PM CST
Curt: I certainly understand your rationale. I am not begging for organics; I am just stating the overwhelming trend. Consumers vote with their feet and their dollars, and at this point, the trend is clear - the growth in their demand is in organics. Now, there might not be enough manure to support that today, but remember, this: Matter cannot be created or destroyed. I am not necessarily a supporter of organics. However, I do think that will be the most profitable segment of agriculture in the years to come...and if that is the case, then I want to be a player.
Curt Zingula
2/15/2014 | 8:52 AM CST
Tom, read what Bonnie wrote!! There is not enough manure in the world to go all organic. We will have to depend on resources mined from mother earth. Dr. Borloug, father of the green revolution and Nobel laureate, estimates that five billion head of cattle would be needed to provide enough manure for world wide organic food production. Dr. Borloug notes that five billion head of cattle would create a GHG problem. I would note that five billion head of cattle is unrealistic with veganism on the rise. Utopia only exists in imaginations!
tom vogel
2/15/2014 | 8:09 AM CST
Folks, one thing to keep in mind is this - consumers are free to make decisions in our economy, and thank God for that. Today consumers are making decisions based upon their own personal tastes and styles, regardless of the science or effects on availability. The organic movement, whether its based on science or not, is by far the most important trend in agriculture today. You might not agree with it, but over time it will be the most profitable sector of the industry...then we will all wake up and decide that's where we want to be, science or no science.
Bonnie Dukowitz
2/14/2014 | 9:46 AM CST
We need to acknowledge that produce needs nutrients. There is not nearly enough livestock in the world to provide that purpose. If only manure is used for crop production, imbalance within the soil developes and degradation of soil health occurs. The consumer needs to be aware of much more than a label. We need to be realistic, without chemicals, how would you and I constuct the greenhouse? We try to raise most of what we consume, but we lightly dust the tomatoes if needed.
Curt Zingula
2/14/2014 | 7:59 AM CST
While I'm still trying to picture Ron's energy sucking hoop houses producing enough fresh veggies for 100 million people in sub-freezing northern U.S., my most persistent question is - why did food companies put preservatives in food in the first place if not needed now? I always assumed it was to alleviate spoilage and the poisoning associated with that. At a time when food allergies and all sorts of digestive sensitivities are on the rise, is our population able to "stomach" more abuse?!! And BTW, does anyone else find it ridiculous that people oppose food preservatives yet have no problem swishing bacteriacides in their mouth and dousing other parts of their body with pesticides to stop offensive odors and fungus? All about marketing isn't it!!!
ron shepard
2/14/2014 | 6:41 AM CST
Consumers are getting smart and reading labels. While the US government fights against small farmers, organic and conventional, organic sales are still growing. Numerous studies have organic yields reaching conventional and it is amazing what organic produce farmers are doing in hoop houses. Fresh greens in the middle of winter. I, as a livestock farmer, find myself buying mostly organic now because I cannot trust the labels on conventional food. Farmers need to look into the mirror and stop demonizing consumers.
Bonnie Dukowitz
2/14/2014 | 5:36 AM CST
All well and good in LaLa Land, till the situations of the past return. Take an unguided tour of fresh, local markets around the world to get a true organic produced and marketing picture. Not a pretty site. Mother Nature will certainly replace the obesity problem with malnutrition if all follow the organic trend.