Washington Insider - Wednesday

New Food Trends from Anaheim

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

USDA Announces US-Cuba Ag Sector Agreements

The 22 US industry-funded research and promotion or “checkoff” programs and 18 Marketing Order organizations will be allowed to conduct authorized research and information exchange activities with Cuba, according to a USDA announcement made in conjunction with President Barack Obama’s visit to the island nation.

All proposed checkoff and Marketing Order activities related to Cuba will be reviewed by USDA to ensure they are consistent with current U.S. law. Most commercial activities are prohibited in Cuba. While the Trade Sanctions Reform Act (TSRA) of 2000 allows for the export of U.S. ag commodities, those are limited by restrictions on government export assistance and extending credit to Cuban entities. Currently, those transactions have to be on a cash basis.

Activities that may take place under the announcement by USDA March 21, pending USDA approval, include nutritional research and guidance, plate waste study research in schools and provision of U.S.-based market, consumer, nutrition and environmental research. Other activities include study of the efficacy of water disinfectants and their role with limiting bacteria on commodities, as well as research into the marketing of specific products and commodities to Cuban consumers.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and Cuba was also signed by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Cuban Minster of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero that establishes a framework for sharing ideas and research between the two countries. Vilsack also invited Minister Rodriguez to join on a visit to one of USDA’s Climate Sub Hubs in Puerto Rico in late May, where USDA researchers are studying the effects of climate change in the subtropical region and strategies for mitigating these effects.


Mars, ConAgra Announce Nationwide GMO Labeling for Products

Labeling of products which contain genetically modified (GMO) ingredients was announced by Mars Inc., and later on Tuesday by ConAgra. The firms join other major U.S. food makers including General Mills in moving to nationwide GMO ingredient labeling ahead of a Vermont law mandating the labels that goes into effect this July.

Mars said it “firmly believe[s] GM[O] ingredients are safe,” but in the interest of “being transparent with our consumers,” it has decided that nationwide labeling of GMO ingredients makes sense.

The move follows a Vermont law which mandates on-package GMO ingredient labeling that goes into effect July 1. Recent congressional efforts led by Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Robert’s, R-Kan., to preempt the state law stalled in the Senate.

In such small print that it’s easy to miss, Mars has started to include the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO) on its candy and chocolate packaging. The words, “Partially produced with genetic engineering,” are printed on the back of M&M bags. You can also find GMO labels on Mars’ 75th anniversary M&Ms, peanut M&Ms, Skittles, Lifesavers and Wrigley gum.

Mars does about $33 billion in sales annually, with a third of that coming in North America. Rival Hershey Co. has not put GMO labels on its packaging, though where practical it is working to removing genetically modified organisms from its products. In May 2015, Mars threw its support behind a proposal to include sugar measurements in the required Nutrition Facts food labels, something other major food companies have resisted.


Washington Insider: New Food Trends from Anaheim

There was an interesting mismatch in factual stories in the urban press this week. Forbes carried a significantly detailed article that criticizes “fear mongering” about foods, and reasons to avoid them. Then, at almost the same time, the New York Times wrote approvingly about the popularity of organic and so-called natural foods as it reported on a visit to the Anaheim Convention Center where some 3,000 exhibitors showed their wares to some 77,000 retailers, suppliers, investors and curiosity-seekers as part of the Natural Products Expo West.

The Times report was nearly breathless—for example, it found the event “so big, it was difficult to know where to begin looking for signs of where food is heading.” So, the article focused on a Whole Foods professional who helpfully pointed out products and trends heading to — or recently arrived at — “a grocery store near you.”

Well, if you still think the nation’s foodies call themselves “health food advocates,” these days, think again. The top trend the Times found featured fat.

“After decades of devotion to 2% milk and low-fat yogurt, Americans are clamoring for products with full fat,” the Times says. While “many consumers are seeking to eat more unprocessed foods, and additional research is becoming available showing the benefits of some fat.” It cites a founder of the Icelandic Milk & Skyr Corporation that built its business on a line of nonfat yogurts, but recently introduced a full-fat variety, which it notes is really selling.

The Times also noted that a raft of companies at the expo showcased products labeled “grain-free,” made from seeds, nuts or legumes and marketed to satisfy adherents of both gluten-free and Paleo diets. The Whole Foods representative was characterized as nibbling on a tiny cup of Purely Elizabeth grain-free granola, a combination of bananas, cashew butter and who commented approvingly on the term “grain-free,” which she said was better marketing than either “Paleo” or “gluten-free.” She noted that the Whole Foods expert thinks the term ‘Paleo,’ on packaging’ seems to be losing some steam so just a more general ‘grain-free’ claim is smart.”

The Times also noted the presence of new organic kefir, or fermented milk. It notes that fermented milk is an old delivery mechanism for probiotics, which are being consumer by “more and more consumers who believe in health foods—and are driving “sales of probiotics at double-digit rates.” And, biodynamics was a hot topic around the exhibition floor. The article says this is a kind of organic farming that views the farm itself as an organism requiring livestock, crop rotation and various soil treatment practices—however, organic specialists note that organics are in fact certified by USDA, while natural systems and similar approaches are not

Nevertheless, the Whole Foods rep told the Times she thought biodynamic products might be able to stand out in a market where plain-vanilla organic has gone mainstream, achieving sales of $39 billion in 2014, according to the Organic Trade Association. NYT notes some disagreement on this point.

While the Times offered a feel for the exhibition, it did not offer complete coverage, but instead provided special snapshot of heirloom products, for example, including corn grown from heirloom seeds on small farms in Mexico. These fruits and vegetables like purple carrots, sweet peppers in merlot hues and tart, white-fleshed “cucamelons” have been making their way out of farmers’ markets and into mainstream grocery stores as consumers seek novelty and growers realize such produce commands higher premiums. One producer told the Times that he believes these products “beyond tomatoes with heirloom,” he said.

Still, there’s more. For example, the Belgian French fry stand and their new product: Fabanaise – an eggless spread or dip. Fabanaise uses the water left over after chickpeas are processed, and the water, co-founder Mark Ramadan told the Times, “happens to be a fantastic emulsifier. The company hopes to boost sales based on the claim that this is a way to sell what was previously waste since “Reducing food waste has become a rallying cry for some consumers, food companies, groceries and chefs. “Products that reduce waste are going to be huge,” the Whole Foods Rep said.

Well, it may be a little shocking to find that the basis for the “new trends” being showcased at Anaheim are mainly based on sales, rather than healthfulness — about the same criticism leveled at food and diet fads for generations. Certainly, the high energy level on display at Anaheim is appealing across the system—and, likely will increase spending on food even if it doesn’t increase national health, Washington Insider believes.

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