Posted in Consumer, Food Safety, Food Systems, Food Technology on Apr 04, 2019

Back in DC

The annual Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) conference always seems to be in the last week of March and coincides with cherry blossom fervour in Washington DC. This year’s event had headlined a few of the ‘big ticket’ issues impacting the industry, but had also taken a wider scope to encompass ‘all of the aisles in the supermarket’.

The whole supermarket

The decision to broaden the interests of the association appear to be the brainchild of the new CEO, Geoff Freeman, who had identified that most of the issues that industry members faced were ones that occurred on the ‘outside of the package’ and there-in lay similarities with every other product in the supermarket or grocery store. For those of us only interested in food products, and more specifically, committed to the integrity of food products, this seemed a bit of a cop-out and a potentially significant deviation from a focus on safety. It was clear that the loss of some key industries from the GMA had been a catalyst for the broadening of the scope.

The sense that the landscape had changed, and that GMA were approaching the industry with more energy was evident in the comment by Dr Betsy Booren, who commented “if you are not at the table you are probably on the menu”. GMA were signalling a change from a defensive to offensive position. This positioning is being built on Freeman’s ‘four pillars’ for the organisation: driving smart, uniform regulation; building trust in products and brands; enhancing packaging sustainability; and, building a frictionless supply chain. While the assurance was given that science was integral to this new model, it was not clear where ‘science’ fits into this new way of working (although there was a great deal of assurance that it would fit). Furthermore, the GMA were still going through a process of prioritisation to identify which five or six issues they would focus on. How would they identify what to prioritise? Freeman described a process of listening to the industry, followed by ‘decisiveness’ – acknowledging that all of the selected areas of focus might not meet everyone’s requirements. It all seemed a bit of an interesting conversation, at the start of a science forum.

Tomatoes 12 months of the year

When a lawyer speaks at a food industry conference, you know that it is going to be on a contentious issue – which does describe GMO and Bioengineered products. Bemoaning the fact that if the GMO industry had taken consumers with it, the world could have had ‘delicious’ tomatoes 12 months of the year (the flavour saver tomato), Martin Hahn provided a run-down of the issues facing the industry – consumers not understanding and accepting GMO products (with discussion of how successful the high fructose corn syrup industry) and with the potential threat of class-action if industry labelling does not keep pace with methods of detection of DNA.

Blockchain – fad or game changer?

Blockchain has its fans – and it has its place, but it is not a miracle cure for all that ails the food system. This was a theme that was spoken about consistently by John Keogh and, in agreement with our previously stated positions, blockchain is an enabler. Keogh quoted Hanna Halaburda- “A more careful look into the technology reveals that most of the proposed benefits of so-called blockchain technologies do not actually come from blockchain”. Keogh was correct in his assertion that blockchain will not prove provenance but there are more ways to determine provanance than the touted 'C13 analyses' (more on provenance in a future blog) – there are a number of technologies and combination of technologies that can prove where something actually comes from. A slightly different perspective on blockchain was provided by Josh Mellinger of Deloittes who considered the positive aspects of being able to tell consumers more about their food products and more about the journey of the product to market. In his words it would enable more products to be sold.

In the course of Mellinger’s presentation, came a nugget of a statistic that is worth further exploration – 30% of produce in the field would not meet consumer expectation. He posited that blockchain-enabled technologies could deviate such products from the consumer supply chain (where it would be wasted) to another channel – such as food manufacturing or animal feed.

Clean labelling enthusiasts

Clean labelling is another area getting a great deal of attention; it grew out of consumer mistrust of the food supply (David Lundahl, of InsightsNow quantified this by saying that 46% of American consumers trust the food system. Put another way, that’s 54% who don’t.) The clean labelling movement arose from an effort to regain trust and the “free-from and natural food” segment is rising rapidly – from $32 billion in 2016 to predicted $41.5 billion in 2021 US sales.

Some of the blame for the rise in demand was placed at the feet of social media influencers who have the ability to rapidly disseminate incorrect information and the stated example of this was ‘parmesan-gate’ which incorrectly took information and transformed it into a story of how there was ‘more wood in your cheese than cheese’. In Lundhal’s words ‘likes are stronger in influencing than science or facts”.

The true focus of the clean labelling session was on a distinct group of consumers: clean labelling enthusiasts (CLE) who make up 27% of purchasing consumers, and for these folks, the gap between who they trust and who they hold responsible is even bigger.

New models of operating

No food conference would be complete without a few regulators speaking – the FDA and USDA were both represented. Frank Yiannis (arguably, one of the key proponents for blockchain while he worked at Walmart) talked about the role and direction of the FDA. Yiannis talked about the need to adopt best practices in the US (this should really be a given!). It was clear from his talk that there will be greater coordination between risks and available data sources, and the adoption of methods such as machine learning, natural language processing and whole genome sequencing. Yiannis spoke of an organisation that was “people led, FSMA [Food Safety and Modernization Act] based, and technology enabled”. His talk was also something of a ‘call to arms’: “alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”. It is a wonderful sentiment but for an industry where there are low levels of trust by consumers and little discussion on how to: 1) listen to consumers; 2) act on their concerns, this conference attendee thinks that there is a long way to go.

Satire might be the answer

The conference concluded on a satirical note – Scott Dikkers, the founder of The Onion provided an entertaining and thought-provoking after dinner speech. It may well be that, in a rather ironic twist, to cut through all of the fake news and misinformation that ‘true fake’ news, in the form of satire may be the most effective tool. Food for thought.

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