Fair Trade USA, growing and still controversial

fairtrade_6833958232_076a8a019b_bFair Trade is an elegant idea. It’s an attempt to make globalization work for the world’s poor. Those of us in rich countries agree to pay a bit more for whatever it is we are buying — coffee is by far the No. 1 Fair Trade commodity — and, in exchange, we are assured that the farmers and workers at the other end of the supply chain are treated fairly.

If only it were that simple.

Today, in the US, there are no fewer than seven Fair Trade and Fair Trade-like labels. You can find an analysis of them here, if you so choose. The trouble is, they are competing in what remains by any measure a niche market.

Paul Rice, the founder of Fair Trade USA, formerly Transfair, wants to change that. I went to see him last week in Oakland, CA., and wrote about his efforts the other day in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Paul Rice, the hard-charging CEO of nonprofit Fair Trade USA, recently toured the Brooklyn headquarters of furniture company West Elm, along with former president Bill Clinton and West Elm’s president, Jim Brett. They were there to celebrate West Elm’s commitment to handcraft products, including the first Fairtrade rugs, which are made in India. “You can have a huge impact on the wage structure in India,” Clinton enthused. “Consumers will buy these. They’re beautiful, besides.”

Fairtrade rugs? What’s next? A lot more than coffee in church basements, it turns out. “We’re talking about furniture, we’re talking about linens, we’re talking about all kinds of things,” says Rice, when we met last week at Fair Trade USA’s offices in Oakland, California. “This move into the manufacturing sector puts us on the threshold of something really big.”

Fair Trade USA is in fast-growth mode. This fall, Patagonia and PACTwill begin selling Fairtrade apparel, made in factories that they say will meet strict environmental and social standards; a small company called Oliberté already sells Fairtrade shoes. Several years ago, Fair Trade USA formed a partnership with a nonprofit startup called Good World Solutions, which has developed mobile technology to connect big companies to the farmers and workers in their supply chains. Meantime, Fair Trade USA is working to certify a bell pepper farm in British Columbia, Canada, expanding the movement beyond its roots in the global south.

This flurry of activity has brought Rice lots of attention, some of it unwelcome. His supporters say that he works tirelessly to expand the impact of fair trade. Critics accuse him of abandoning its principles. As Jonathan Rosenthal, a co-founder of the co-op Equal Exchange, told The Nation: “Paul is not afraid to think and act on a big scale. That’s one of his great gifts. And he’s willing to cut any corners to get there. That, to me, is one of his great faults.”

The disagreements about what constitutes authentic Fair Trade can get pretty arcane pretty quickly. Some people, for example, argue that a chocolate bar should not be labeled Fair Trade unless the chocolate and the sugar were both procured from worker owned co-ops; others say the chocolate alone should do it. Small differences often matter, but in this arena, it seems to me that the priority ought to be growing the idea and practice of Fair Trade, even if compromises must be made along the way. As the movement grows, the bar can be lifted.

If you want to know more, see my 2012 blogpost, A schism over Fair Trade. You can read the rest of my Guardian story here.

GMOs, engineered to make better food

GMO_s_300_300_100With some reluctance, I’m again writing this week about  genetically-modified organisms. My reluctance stems from the fact that on this topic, most people’s minds appear to be made up. People tend to be for ‘em or agin’ em, and for whatever reason, most aren’t open to listening to arguments that challenge their settled view.

My own views are undecided when it comes to the debate over labeling, and the environmental benefits, if any, of GMOs. I’m persuaded that the health risks of eating GMOs, which most Americans do every day, are zero or close to zero although, again, I’m not going to try to change the minds of those who believe otherwise. I’m concerned, finally, about the intellectual property issues surrounding GMOs, although, again, this is complicated because it takes many years and millions of dollars of investment to develop new crops.

Today’s story took root (pun alert!) last winter when I visited the Johnston, Iowa, headquarters of Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont. (It’s near Des Moines, where I moderated a panel on food security at Drake University.) I toured a couple of labs — one for conventional breeding, another for genetic engineering, and chatted with scientists and executives. Pioneer has a fascinating history, by the way: It was founded in 1926 by Henry A. Wallace, who learned about plants as a young boy from his neighbor, George Washington Carver, and went on to become FDR’s secretary of agriculture and vice president.

In any event, while at Pioneer, I heard about genetically-engineered soybeans that have been branded as Plenish. They were designed to make soybean oil that is free of trans fats, and thus healthier than conventional soybean oil. Earlier, I’d heard about a biotech potato under development called Innate, which reduces black spots and thereby means fewer potatoes are wasted. These are among the first biotech crops to promise direct, tangible benefits to consumers, and I decided that was worth a story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

It’s easy to understand why many Americans are unenthusiastic about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Although supermarket aisles are lined with foods made from biotech crops – most cereals, frozen foods, canned soups, vegetable oils, soft drinks, baby formula, tofu and even milk contain GMOs – consumers have yet to see tangible benefits from GMOs. The biotech industry has been slow to develop food that is healthier, better tasting or longer lasting – to its political detriment.

As Food and Water Watch, a critic of GMOs, has argued, hyperbolically: “The only ones experiencing any benefits from GE crops are the few, massive corporations that are controlling the food system at every step and seeing large profit margins.”

That is about to change.

Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont, is bringing to the market a brand of genetically engineered soybean called Plenish that the company says will produce a healthier oil, free of transfats. Plenish oils have been designed to replace the unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils used to fry food and to keep cookies and crackers, crackers and chips from going stale.

Meantime, the JR Simplot Co, the US’s biggest potato processor, is seeking regulatory approval for genetically engineered potatoes branded as Innate. Simplot says the Innate potatoes will limit black spots from bruising, deliver improved taste and reduce the formation of acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical that has been identified as a potential carcinogen and is created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.

You can think of these new products as GMOs 2.0 – biotech foods designed not just for farmers but for consumers, too. Other examplesinclude the Arctic Apple, which like the Innate potato is engineered not to go brown, and a soybean oil enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids from Monsanto.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Feeding the hungry at Panera Bread

Not by coincidence, I’m blogging today from a Panera Bread cafe near my home in Bethesda, MD. The atmosphere is pleasant, the people are friendly, the wi-fi is reliable and the food is pretty good. (I have a weak spot for the shortbread cookies.) But, as I learned recently, there’s more to this company than meets the eye of a casual visitor.

I wrote a story about Panera Bread this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. The peg was the release of the company’s comprehensive food policy, which is worthwhile — the company is going to try to get rid of all artificial flavorings and colorings in its food by 2016  — but unremarkable in a world where fast-casual competitors like Chipotle and SweetGreen market “food with integrity” or “authentic food.”

What stands out about Panera is its commitment to doing something about hunger in America. Its CEO, Ron Shaich, has spoken eloquently about the problem. Panera has long donated leftover food to homeless shelters and food pantries. Most interestingly, though, Panera through its foundation has opened five “community cafes” where people pay whatever they want. The “community cafes” suggest donations, but there are no fixed prices. The hope is that those with means will pay enough so that those who are poor can eat there, too, and enjoy the full Panera experience–the food, service, atmosphere, maybe even the wi-fi. The concept is working fairly well, although Shaich told me that the cafes still require modest subsidies from the foundation.

Here’s how my story begins:

When you hear the word company, what comes to mind? You might think about business, or perhaps the military (a company of soldiers), the arts (a touring company) or the evening ahead (are you expecting company?). The word company evolved from the Old Frenchcompaignon, literally “one who breaks bread with another”, and before that from the Latin panis, for “bread”. A company, in the broadest sense of the word, is a group of people who join together to do something no one can do alone.

Which is a fitting introduction to the fast-casual restaurant chain Panera Bread – yes, the name comes from that same word panis, Latin for bread – and its founder and CEO, Ron Shaich. An idealist, Shaich pondered a career in politics before opening a tiny cookie shop in Boston in 1980.

Since then, Shaich has consciously tried to build a company that is about more than the bottom line. Today, the 60-year-old CEO guides a chain of 1,800 restaurants that serves more than eight million customers a week and employs more than 80,000 people. Last year, Panera generated $2.3bn in revenues and nearly $200m in profits.

But, as Shaich told me by phone the other day, Panera’s purpose is not to generate revenues or profits. Its purpose is to serve: to serve good food, and to serve its customers, workers and communities. If it does those things well, he says, business results will follow.

“If we don’t touch people, and we don’t make a difference in their lives in a real way, we don’t have a reason to exist,” Shaich says. Companies need to sustain those around them. “If all we’re about is extracting profits from the community, there’s not going to be a community left from which to extract profits.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

Has success spoiled Green Mountain Coffee?

image“Doing well by doing good” has become a cliche on the corporate-responsibility circuit. And for good reason–smart companies that serve their customers, provide opportunity to their workers and connect with their communities are likely to deliver superior shareholder returns.

But doing well can complicate the desire to do good. That’s been the challenge lately for the company formerly known as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and now called Keurig Green Mountain Coffee.  Thanks to the sales of Keurig coffee machines and literally billions of single-serve coffee pods — which cannot be recycled — the Vermont-based firm has been on a tear, rapidly growing its revenues and stock price, while generating enormous amounts of waste. And to what end?

My story about Green Mountain was posted today at Guardian  Sustainable Business.  With apologies for my formatting problems today (I’m working on an iPad) here is a link that you can copy into a browser –  http://flip.it/sSCuG  – and here is how the story begins:

Not long ago, Green Mountain Coffee and it’s chief  executive, Bob Stiller,  were hailed as corporate responsibility pioneers. Green Mountain was the world’s largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee. The company offset the carbon emissions of its energy use and won a “green power” award from EPA. Twice, it topped CR Magazine’s list of the 100 best corporate citizens.

Today, Keurig Green Mountain (KGM), as it is now known, remains a corporate-responsibility standout. But the Vermont-based firm has a dark stain on its reputation. Since acquiring Keurig, the inventor of a single-serve coffee machine and its patented K-Cups, the company has become the driving force behind what critics say is an environmental scourge – the throwaway coffee pods made of plastic and aluminum foil that waste energy and materials, and are all but impossible to recycle.

Meanwhile, Stiller, an ex-hippie who briefly became a billionaire, was forced out of KGM after going on a spending spree with borrowed money, acquiring a 164-foot yacht, a $10m, 7,500-square-foot Palm Beach mansion and a $17.5m Manhattan condo formerly owned by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Green living, that’s not.

What went wrong with Green Mountain? In a word, success. Its story challenges easy pieties about doing well by doing good. This is a company that has done very well – but only by setting aside, at least for now, the environmental values it once held dear.

Green Mountain shareholders certainly aren’t complaining. Shares of Keurig Green Mountain (NASDAQ:GMCR) have grown 50% in the last year and 548% in five years. Sales have skyrocketed to $4.4bn last year from $492n in 2008. Those Keurig machines and the little plastic cylinders that pop into them have driven that growth, accounting for more than 90% of revenues.

Keurig Brewing Systems are now used in 16m US homes, about one in six, the company estimates. In 2013, KGM says it sold roughly 8.3bn “portion packs”.

To be fair, Keurig Green Mountain recognizes that the waste created by its coffee pods is a problem and promises to reduce it. Monique Oxender, the company’s senior director of corporate responsibility, told me: “Recycling is one of those areas where we have a lot of work to do, and we know that.”

This isn’t a simple story.  Keurig Green Mountain says it intends to make 100% of K-Cup packs recyclable. And the company argues that the single serve machines save resources in the the coffee-growing supply chain because the machines waste less coffee than traditional brewing methods.

But Keurig also has announced alliances with Coca Cola and Campbell Soup to develop single serve machines for cold drinks and soups. In the company’s latest annual report, CEO Brian Kelly writes: “Our mission is to have a Keurig® System on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.” That sounds like a recipe for a whole lot more waste.

By now, we should know better. As author and activist Amy Larkin told me:  “We now understand waste, water usage, manufacturing, mining, freight transport and packaging and their impact on the world. It seems madness to develop a product line that increases all of the above.

That said, Green Mountain remains a sustainability leader in other arenas, particularly as a strong support of the Fair Trade movement. I’m told that its coffee buying team is one of the most progressive and creative in the industry.

In other words, it’s complicated–a lot more complicated than “doing well by doing good. ”

 

From an organic pioneer, a vegan cookbook

© Scott Campbell PhotographyOne of my favorite events each year is Cooking for Solutions, a conference and food festival staged beautifully by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a gathering of smart people who are passionate about food–how it’s produced, its impact on the environment and on health and, of course, how it tastes. Monterey is a great place to spend a few days and the aquarium is world-class. This year, I met some great chefs who I hope to be able to write about in the weeks and months ahead.

I also re-connected with Myra Goodman, who with her husband Drew co-founded Earthbound Farm, an organic industry powerhouse. Myra and Drew host a breakfast outdoors each year at Earthbound’s Farm Stand in Carmel Valley, which is usually followed by a panel about the organic industry.

imgresThis year, Myra made news herself. She and Drew sold Earthbound to an even bigger organic firm, White Wave Foods, and she and her daughter Marea have written a cookbook called Straight From the Earth: Irresistible Vegan Recipes for Everyone. I haven’t had a chance to try any of the recipes yet, but I did write about Myra and her book last week for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Myra and Drew Goodman never planned to become farmers. They were two kids from New York City who graduated from the same high school, went to college and then made their way to northern California to take a year off before grad school. Living in a 600-square-foot home in rural Carmel Valley, they grew organic raspberries and sold them at a roadside stand. “A romantic adventure”, Myra calls it.

That was 30 years ago. Grad school never happened, but their company, Earthbound Farm, became America’s largest grower of organic produce. In January, the Goodmans and their shareholders sold Earthbound to White Wave, a Colorado-based company whose brands include Silk and Horizon Organic, for about $600m.

That’s a lot of lettuce.

I sat down with Myra Goodman last week during Cooking for Solutions, a conference and foodfest presented by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We talked about the growth of the organic food industry, the problems with meat and why the word “vegan” isn’t in the title of her new cookbook of plant-based recipes, Straight from the Earth.

Over the past three decades, Goodman, who is 50, has helped change the way crops are grown in America; now she’d like to help change the American diet. “We need to eat a lot less meat,” she says, “and a lot more plants”.

It looks like America may be moving in that direction. Last week, the organic food industry reported that it is growing again after a sluggish few years, post-recession. Sales of organic products in the US jumped to $35.1bn in 2013, up 11.5% from $31.5bn in 2012, the fastest growth rate in five years, according to the Organic Trade Association.

The story goes on to explain why eating less meat — particularly conventionally raised beef — is one of the simplest steps anyone can take to reduce carbon emissions. You can read the rest here.

Flour power? Soon you may be eating coffee

0408_coffee_cherry_inline_315Maybe because I do a lot of writing in coffee shops (thanks, Quartermaine!), I’ve long been interested in the coffee industry. Many years ago, I wrote about Starbucks in my book Faith and Fortune. Last fall, I covered McDonald’s efforts to source sustainable coffee. And I’m currently reporting a story about Green Mountain Coffee (and looking for its former CEO, Bob Stiller, so if anyone reading has his email address, please pass it along).

Today, though, the topic is a startup company that intends to turn a waste product that piles up at coffee mills around the world into a new ingredient called Coffee Flour, which can be baked into cookies or brownies, combined with chocolate, worked into candy corn and used in a variety of gourmet recipes. This startup, called CF Global, has some impressive investors, including Intellectual Ventures, the company started by former Microsoft executive and renowned foodie Nathan Myrhvold, and two coffee industry giants, ECOM Agroindustrial Corp, a Swiss-based coffee millers and traders,  and Mercon Coffee Corp, a trading firm with roots in Nicaragua. If CF Global gets traction, the company could help eliminate a pollutant (the coffee waste often gets into waterways), provide added income for coffee farmers and create a source of nutritious food for a hungry world.

My story ran today in Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Dan Belliveau is not a coffee guy. He is an engineer who has helped design factories for General Motors, Frito-Lay and Starbucks, among others. At the coffee giant, while helping to automate roasting and packing plants, he stumbled upon a big problem: coffee waste.

Specifically, Belliveau learned that billions of pounds of reddish pulp, known as coffee cherry, are left over after coffee beans are extracted from their shells. Some discarded pulp is used to make tea, some is worked back into the soil as fertilizer, but most of it piles up around coffee mills and pollutes nearby waterways.

Why, Belliveau wondered, couldn’t the waste be made into something useful?

His questioning eventually led him to invent coffee flour – a nutritious, gluten-free meal, made from coffee cherry, that can be baked into cookies, brownies, granola, candy corn and even chocolate. If coffee flour becomes a success, it could help solve an environmental problem, supplement the income of coffee farmers and deliver nutrition to a hungry world.

The story is generating a lot of, er, buzz. More than 2,000 shares on Facebook, as I write this. You can read the rest here.

Walmart’s food czar

Jack SinclairNational Geographic is running a months-long project about the future of food in the magazine, online and at live events, including one last Friday here in your nation’s capital. It’s an impressive journalistic undertaking, one very much worth following. I learned last week that a couple of top editors at Nat Geo are farm boys with ag degrees. Who knew? In any event, last week’s confab featured a series of lively and civil conversations about the global food system, and how to fix it.

One of a handful of speakers from business was Jack Sinclair, who oversees the grocery business for Walmart. Walmart, of course, sells more food than any other company in America, and the Bentonville giant is willing to throw its weight around, for better or worse.

Mostly for the better, in my view. Just in 2014, Walmart has supported (with its dollars) better working conditions for Florida farmworkers and a major rollout of organic foods under the hitherto defunct Wild Oats brand. Meantime, it is pushing its big suppliers to dig into their supply chains to make farming practices more efficient.

I sat down with Jack Sinclair before the conference last week, and wrote about him in a story posted today at The Guardian. Here’s how it begins:

One of the most powerful people in the US food industry is a 52-year-old native of Scotland who got his start in the business stacking groceries on supermarket shelves. Today, as an executive vice-president in charge of all the grocery operations at Walmart, Jack Sinclair is still stacking shelves – albeit on a grander scale.

Sinclair, who has been with Walmart since 2007, doesn’t just help to decide which products will make their way onto the shelves of America’s biggest retailer: he also exercises influence over how and where they are grown. In fact, joining Sinclair at a panel discussion at the National Geographic Society last week, former US agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said: “If you ask me what is the most important force in the agriculture today, I’d point to Walmart.”

It’s a startling claim, but there’s little doubt that Walmart’s impact on food and agriculture is vast. More than half of its annual revenues, which topped $476bn last year, come from groceries, and its market share is growing. Increasingly, the retailers has shown a willingness to use its buying power to influence the way that food is grown.

Last week, for example, Walmart invited the CEOs of Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg and PepsiCo, among others, to its Bentonville headquarters for a sustainability summit. Several of these top food execs promised to persuade farmers in their supply chains to use less fertilizer and water to grow crops, and to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

I liked Jack Sinclair, although after seven years at the company he has been thoroughly indoctrinated into the “everyday low prices” mantra of Walmart. He must have told me a half dozen times that Walmart’s food initiatives will lower costs and drive out inefficiencies, and will therefore make the food system more sustainable. That’s almost surely true — using less fertilizer on farms saves money and protects waterways from being polluted by runoff — but it will take more than a narrow focus on efficiency to produce affordable, healthy, sustainable food.

For example, those of us in the rich world will need to shift our diets away from meat and especially beef with its heavy carbon and water footprint. A healthy food system means people will drink less soda and eat fewer foods that are heavily processed and high in sugar, salt and fat. Those changes are part of a “sustainable food” movement. Will Walmart be supportive? That’s an open question.

You can read the rest of my store here.

Untangling the lexicon of sustainability

Douglas Gayeton

Douglas Gayeton

Words can illuminate. Words can mislead. Words matter.

That’s one reason why I’m intrigued by Douglas Gayeton’s videos, books and “information artworks,” all of which are part of a vast and sprawling series called The Lexicon of Sustainability. They’re designed to help people separate what’s b.s. from what’s real in the world of sustainability.

Gayeton’s focus, so far, has been on food, and that’s smart. Nowhere is there more confusion about what’s sustainable, and what’s not, than in the supermarket — where claims like “all natural” and “multigrain” and “no sugar added” hide as much as they reveal.

I wrote a story about Gayeton the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Art has long inspired environmental activism. The photographer Ansel Adams, whose iconic black-and-white images of the American west helped to build support for the US National Park Service, served on the board of the Sierra Club for 37 years, working closely with David Brower, the club’s first executive director.

So it’s fitting that The Lexicon of Sustainability, a collection of artworks and short films by Douglas Gayeton that are designed to educate and activate people, have come to the David Brower Center, the nerve center of green business and environmental activism in Brower’s hometown of Berkeley.

Gayeton’s Lexicon of Sustainability artworks and films are based on a simple premise, he said. He explained that people can’t be expected to live “greener” lives, or act on behalf of the planet, until they better understand the language of sustainability. “Remember,” the films say, “your words can change the world.” This first series of works exploresfood and farming; future series will explain water and climate.

“The term sustainability has been totally debased,” Gayeton told me. “You can find sustainable shoes. You can find sustainable soda. Anything can be sustainable. People have hijacked the term. My wife and I thought, ‘Why not take it back?

The best way to understand what Gayeton is up to is to check out his artworks or watch one of his films. here’s one about eggs that told me things I didn’t know. The film is courtesy of PBS.org and you can read the rest of my story here.

Watch The Story of an Egg on PBS. See more from The Lexicon of Sustainability.

Yet another reason to eat less meat

chickens-4The more I learn about the way most chickens, pigs and cows are raised and slaughtered in America, the less appetite I have for meat. I’m not a vegetarian, and may never become one. But, hey, I’ve given up the NFL. I’d like to give up industrial meat, too.

I’ve long been aware of the negative environmental impacts of factory-produced meat. There’s plenty of evidence that the meat-heavy American diet isn’t good for our health. We’re learning than the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture puts human health at risk. And chickens and pigs raised for food are confined in cages and crates barely larger than their bodies. It’s not a pretty picture.

Last week. at a forum organized by the New America Foundation called The New Meat Monopoly: The Animal, The Farmer, and You in the New Age of Global Giants, I heard about another reason to avoid factory-farmed meat: Big meat companies, and in particular Tyson Foods, have grown so powerful that they have made life harder than it needs to be for small-scale farmers and ranchers. At the Washington event, farmers, ranchers, anti-trust experts and animal welfare advocates lined up to pillory the big guys.

Among the speakers at the event was  New America Foundation fellow Christopher Leonard, the author of a well-reviewed new book called The Meat Racket:  The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. Leonard argues in the book (which I haven’t read, but hope to) that companies like Tyson “keep farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.” They are able to do so in part because many farmers have only one or two customers to sell to, so the customers hold all the cards.

Subsequently, I read Obama’s Game of Chicken, an excellent 2012 article Lina Khan in the Washington Monthly about abuses of power by companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, and how Obama’s USDA and DOJ have failed to curb them. Khan, who’s also affiliated with the New America Foundation, describes in rich detail what she calls “the stark and growing imbalance of power between the farmers who grow our food and the companies who process it for us, and how this imbalance enables practices unimaginable in any competitive market.”

I wrote about the New America event last week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Like politics, industrial-scale meat production creates strange bedfellows. Animal welfare advocates are joining up with farmers, environmentalists and supporters of stronger antitrust laws in the hope of engaging consumers on the issues involving the meat they buy. The aim? To counter the power of big meat companies like Tyson Foods and JBS, the world’s largest protein company and the owner of brands including Pilgrim’s Pride and Kraft.

“Maybe it’s time for a citizens revolt,” said Barry Lynn, director of the markets, enterprise and resiliency initiative at the New America Foundation. Lynn was speaking at a half-day forum in Washington called “The New Meat Monopoly: the animal, the farmer and you in the new age of global giants“.

The accusations thrown at the global meat giants were mostly familiar. By raising and slaughtering chicken, pigs and cattle on a large scale – about eight billion chickens will be raised and killed this year in the US – these companies squeeze out family farmers, treat animals cruelly, create waste and air pollution, and feed their livestock antibiotics that, over time, put human health at risk and raise healthcare costs, at least according to their critics.

What’s more, these critics argue, is that the meat industry’s consolidation and power have been supported by government policy. Subsidized corn and soy reduce the price of meat. Bank loans to farmers are backstopped by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Government regulations make it harder to build and operate small-scale slaughterhouses.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Who’s responsible for obesity?

photo (7)While I have long been inclined to think of American’s obesity epidemic as fundamentally a matter of individual responsibility — after all,  despite what has been called an obesogenic environment, many Americans manage to keep fit or at least avoid getting too fat through a combination of healthy eating and exercise — I’m gradually coming around to the belief that big food companies and the US government need to take some of the responsibility for obesity-related diseases, and for their costs.

The other day in Guardian Sustainable Business, I wrote a story about Lunchables, the fun-to-assemble packaged lunches aimed at kids that were invented in 1988 by Oscar Mayer, then and now a division of Kraft. I did the story after learning that a healthier and more “natural” packaged lunch had been introduced by Revolution Foods, a company I admire. (See my 2012 blog post, Healthy school lunches: You say you want a revolution.)

As part of my research, I read a chapter about Lunchables in a 2013 book by Michael Moss, a New York Times reporter, called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I’ve since read nearly all of the book, and it delivers on the promise of its title, by showing how big food companies, notably Kraft, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, formulated their products with unhealthy ingredients, employed the world’s best food scientists to figure out how to get people to consume more of them, and then marketed them in ways that were often calculated to deceive. For example, they used unrealistic portion sizes on nutrition labels, or added a very small amount of fruit juice to a product and then boasted that it contains “real fruit.”

The government hasn’t been helpful in this regard either, despite the well-publicized efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama. Farm bill subsidies flow to cheap corn and soy, used to feed chickens, fatten cows or sweeten soft drinks, and not to healthier fruits and vegetables. The USDA coordinates marketing checkoff programs to promote meat, milk and cheese. Dairy marketers “teamed up with restaurant chains like Domino’s to help foster concoctions like ‘The Wisconsin,’ a pie that has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust,” Moss writes. Americans now eat about 33 pounds per capita of cheese and cheese-like products per year, he reports, triple the amount we consumed in the 70s.

As it happens, Lunchables deserve a small portion of the “credit” for the growth in consumption of fat-laden cheese and pseudo-cheese. Interestingly, the product was created way back when to increase sales of bologna–which were falling as a result of health concerns about processed meat. It worked, as my story notes:

Back in the 1980s, health-conscious shoppers began to shy away from processed meat because of worries about fat and salt. Executives at Oscar Mayer, facing declining bologna sales, could have sought healthier alternatives. Instead, they invented Lunchables, the packaged, refrigerated, convenient meal in a box.

Kids loved them – they found it fun to assemble the crackers, bologna and cheese – and so did harried parents. But food critics were, and still are, appalled by the fat, sugar and salt packed into Lunchables’ familiar yellow packages.

Today, Lunchables is a $1bn brand with a persistent image problem – and it’s facing a new competitor aimed at health-conscious parents.

The new arrival is Revolution Foods, a small company based in Oakland, California, that has already enjoyed success delivering healthier meals for kids to schools. Last fall, Revolution Foods introduced packaged Meal Kits. They can now be found in more than 1,000 stores, including Safeway, Target, King Sooper’s (a unit of Krogers) and Whole Foods.

Will Kraft Foods, Oscar Mayer’s parent company, respond with better-for-you versions of Lunchables, or will the company stand pat and risk further damage to its reputation?

To be sure, Kraft has already improved the nutritional profile of Lunchables, reducing sodium, fat and calories. What’s more, the company is in a tough spot because people like foods with fat, salt and sugar. When companies like PepsiCo and Campbell’s Soup removed fat, salt or sugar from products, sales reportedly declined.

I’m not sure how to resolve what appears to be an unavoidable tension between what’s good for business and what’s good for the health of Americans. Despite the rhetoric about social responsibility that comes out of the food industry — this page about Kellogg’s “Passion for Nutrition” is a personal favorite — companies like Kraft and Kellogg’s and Pepsico pay people to go to work every day and sell as many boxes of Lunchables or Frosted Flakes, or bags of Fritos, or cans of Pepsi as they possibly can. Of course, as these companies are quick to remind us, they also offer plenty of healthier alternatives. Consumers do have choices.

So can we blame the food companies when some people make themselves sick by consuming too much of their products? Hard to say, but I’m less likely to brush away the question than I used to be.

You can read the rest of my story here.