Obama gets heaping helpings of advice
Ready-to-eat meal sales increasing
Private labels soaring while economy tanks
GMA: 2009 priorities will be safety, security
British cake mix shakes up in package
Lemon juice bottle is fancier, lighter


Obama gets heaping helpings of advice

by Pan Demetrakakes
Executive Editor


Like all presidents-to-be, Barack Obama is getting a lot of advice, whether he wants it or not. Some of it has to do with food policy.

Some food industry observers and consumer groups are urging Obama to make fundamental changes in U.S. food policy, in areas including food safety, farm subsidies and trade agreements. Obama is being asked in some quarters to change the division of responsibility between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for safety, consumer outreach and other functions.

Several groups are asking Obama, broadly speaking, to reverse U.S. agricultural policy that, they claim, unduly benefits large-scale corporate farms. A consortium of consumer groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America, issued a statement asking Obama to appoint an agriculture secretary who will promote healthier diets, pay more attention to pollution and soil conversation issues, and be more aggressive in ensuring the safety of the U.S food supply. On Wednesday, news reports stated that Obama would nominate former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary.

“Unfortunately, USDA has lost its way,” Carol Tucker-Foreman, a spokesperson for the Consumer Federation of America, said in the statement. “It is now dominated by a collection of special interests, far removed from the people it is supposed to serve.”

The consortium also asked Obama to consolidate the nation’s food-safety functions under a single executive of Health and Human Services, the cabinet department that oversees the FDA. However, it urged that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the government agency responsible for meat and poultry inspection, remain part of USDA. In this, the groups are at odds with the Institute of Medicine, which is recommending that FSIS become part of the FDA.

Obama also received a letter, signed by 84 individuals who participate in or comment on the food industry, offering advice for future farm policy.

“The current system unnaturally favors economies of scale, consolidation and market concentration and the allocation of massive subsidies for commodities, all of which benefit the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families,” the letter says. Signatories include journalist and documentary filmmaker Eric Schlosser, author Michael Pollan and author and professor Marion Nestle.

Organizations representing grain farmers are advising Obama to lift restrictions on trading with Cuba. Rebecca Bratter, director of policy at U.S. Wheat Associates, told Food Navigator USA that getting restrictions lifted will be a priority in 2009. The U.S. currently has about a 25% to 30% share of the Cuban agricultural import market; in other Caribbean nations, the U.S. share of the wheat market is around 80%.


TOP DEVELOPMENTS

Ready-to-eat meal sales increasing
Of the roughly 62 billion commercial foodservice meals and snacked consumed per year, 6% are purchased at retail outlets including food, drug, discount, department and price clubs, and an additional 7% are purchased at convenience stores, according to a new report from The NPD Group, a market research company. Retail ready-to-eat meal and snack purchases grew 2% for the year ending in August 2008, and the quick service restaurant (QSR) segment served 1% more meals and snacks. This is opposed to the full-service restaurant segment, which suffered a downturn. According to the report, consumers purchase prepared meals and snacks from retail stores due to convenience, variety, availability of healthier options and affordability, attributes that consumers report lacking at QSRs.

Private labels soaring while economy tanks
Private label product sales are increasing past those of name-brand counterparts due to the poor economy and will continue to do so in the next year, according to industry experts. In terms of dollar sales, U.S. private label product sales have increased 10% this year, compared to less than 3.5% growth for name-brand products, according to Nielsen. Tougher negotiations are expected in the current commodity and economic climate. According to analysts, the U.S. recession is expected to put more pressure on big-name food manufacturers to keep retail prices low so as to not lose consumers, especially since corn and crude oil prices have plunged since the summer.

GMA: 2009 priorities will be safety, security
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has predicted that sustainability and safety will be standards for 2009. “Sustainability will not only continue to gain prominence in the mainstream, but this year, some think it could even become standard,” said Rebecca Pollack, lead editor of a special year-end report for GMA’s SmartBrief information service. Pollack also noted that the Food and Drug Administration will get more oversight over imports, and that food safety legislation can be expected when the Obama administration and a Democratic-led Congress take charge in January. A GMA poll of its members and supporters revealed that food safety, which received 40% of the vote, and environmental sustainability, which received 24%, are expected to become even more important in 2009.

NEW PACKAGES

British cake mix shakes up in package
A cupcake mix marketed by Asda, the British food retailing unit of Wal-Mart, comes in a plastic tub that serves as a mixing unit. Asda Shake to Bake Fairy Cake Mix (“fairy cakes” is the British term for cupcakes) comes in a 210-gram size that makes eight single-serve cakes. Consumers add water, replace the lid and shake. The package also contains frosting in a flexible pouch, and eight paper cups for baking. An outer shrink sleeve label extends over the cap for tamper evidence.


















Lemon juice bottle is fancier, lighter
A plastic bottle for lemon juice features an embossed leaf design and allowed 21% lightweighting in the upper bottle. Private-label juice bottler Cliffstar Corp., Dunkirk, N.Y., is using a 32-ounce polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle from Amcor PET Packaging for its lemon juice. The bottle features embossed leaves above the label and a deep green color to communicate a “natural” feel. The redesign has the same label panel area as the previous one, for transparency to Cliffstar private-label customers, but is 10 grams lighter.