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Listeria Presents a Very Rocky Road

icecreamListeria continues to make headlines and cause death, hospitalizations, and numerous food recalls. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there have been 16 different recalls since March of this year due to Listeria found in food products including hummus, frozen spinach, smoothie kits, and most notably ice cream.

What is unusual about Listeria bacteria is that they can grow and multiply under refrigerated conditions. Therefore, they can be present in cold, wet environments as commonly found in many packaging areas. Listeria niches have been detected in drains and areas of condensation within a plant, such as the ceiling or light fixtures. Listeria monocytogenes has contaminated ready-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs, refrigerated meat spreads, unpasteurized milk and dairy products, soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk, refrigerated smoked seafood, cantaloupes, coleslaw, and raw sprouts. Keep Reading

Single Food Agency: Theory vs. Reality

The Obama Administration’s recent budget proposal for FY 2016 endorsed the concept of establishing a single federal food safety agency—reviving discussion on what has been a long-standing issue. This initiative has generated many of the same talking points that have surrounded this topic for decades, including everyone’s favorite reference to the absurdity of a system in which the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) maintains processing oversight of a cheese pizza until pepperoni is added, at which point the oversight shifts to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (USDA FSIS).

There is near universal agreement that no one would design such a system if they were working off a proverbial clean sheet of paper. While this is undoubtedly correct, it forces us to juxtapose this theoretical point against the 100+ years of oversight, policy, and paperwork generated by the FDA, FSIS, and its predecessor agencies, not to mention other relevant players such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and countless other state, local, and private parties. This history raises enormous practical and political barriers to change. We have a status quo maintained by a dizzying array of interests, both public and private, scattered through various government, departments, agencies, congressional committees, trade associations, labor unions, etc.  Keep Reading

Calorie Labeling: Coming to a Restaurant, Grocery Store, and Theater Near You

The long-awaited final regulations for calorie labeling were released on Dec. 1, 2014. These regulations come 4+ years after the law requiring them passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. And, the regulatory verdict from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is clear: Calories will be everywhere. Nearly all chain food establishments that sell “restaurant-type food” and have 20 or more sites nationally will have to post calories on menus. Despite early signals that some food establishments might be exempt, the final regulations state that fast-food restaurants, full-service restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores, movie theaters, bakeries, convenience stores, vending machine operators, and yes, bowling alleys must comply. Schools are pretty much the only entities that aren’t included. The regulations give establishments until December 2015 to post calories; vending machine operators have until December 2016. Keep Reading

Tyson-Hillshire Merger: An Antitrust Concern?

PigsIowa Senator Chuck Grassley and a number of meat industry observers have called for close antitrust scrutiny by the U.S. Dept. of Justice of Tyson Foods’ announced purchase of Hillshire Brands. While scrutiny of mergers is always a good idea, does this merger really pose a threat to markets or is this simply a knee-jerk, pro forma complaint about change?

In any antitrust matter, the primary concern is defining the relevant market. In this case, both the output and input facets of Tyson’s and Hillshire’s businesses would be of concern.

The two companies both sell meat products but I think it would be difficult to argue that they sell in common markets. Hillshire sells, almost exclusively, further processed, branded items. Tyson does some of that, especially in its chicken business, but it sells far more fresh, unprocessed wholesale pork and beef cuts, many of which go to companies just like Hillshire. Keep Reading

U.S. Supreme Court Paves Way for More False Advertising Disputes

Minute Maid Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 JuicesOn June 12, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an 8-0 ruling in favor of Pom Wonderful in a longstanding false advertising dispute against rival beverage company The Coca-Cola Co. The Supreme Court held that competitors can bring Lanham Act claims like Pom Wonderful’s challenging food and beverage labels regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

At issue in the case was Coca-Cola’s “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices,” which is 99% apple and grape juice. Pom Wonderful (Pom), who has a competing pomegranate-blueberry juice blend, sued Coca-Cola. It alleged that the juice’s name and other labeling features were misleading under the federal Lanham Act—a statute that allows competitors to sue based on the false or misleading description of goods (15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)). Keep Reading

Resurgence of Food Irradiation

Radura symbol

FDA requires that irradiated foods bear the international symbol for irradiation.

Except for those within food companies that are having their products routinely irradiated, we haven’t heard much about food irradiation over the last decade. However, recently there seems to be a resurgence of press articles and even government approvals related to irradiating food. What’s going on?

In the 1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a significant step by approving the irradiation of spices (more accurately, dehydrated aromatic vegetable substances) to a maximum dose limit of 30 kGy and fresh food products to a maximum dose limit of 1 kGy. These two applications are very different from one another and require different equipment. Furthermore, one is for perishable product and the other is for non-perishable product, requiring different product handling and logistics. Keep Reading

The U.S. Organic Food Market: From Niche to Mainstream

Infographic courtesy of Walmart

Infographic courtesy of Walmart

The U.S. organic food market has grown significantly and changed dramatically since its birth during the 1970s as a counterculture movement. Its growth rate slowed during the recession then rose back into double-digits in 2011. In 2012, organic food sales for at-home consumption totaled $26.3 billion (Wohl, 2014) and comprised over 4% of total U.S. food sales for at-home consumption (Greene, 2013). Produce and dairy products are the dominant categories, accounting for 43% and 15% of total organic sales in 2012 (Greene, 2013), respectively. The Nutrition Business Journal is projecting that the organic food market will exceed $60 billion by 2020 (Wohl, 2014).

According to the Hartman Group, health concerns are prominent in consumers’ reasons for buying organic foods and beverages. Six of the top 10 motivations were (in descending order): “safer for me,” “avoid pesticides,” “avoid GMOs,” “avoid growth hormones,” “for nutritional needs,” and “safer for my children.”

In 2012, mass market retailers, such as Walmart and Target generated 46% of U.S. organic food sales, while 44% of the sales were attributable to natural and specialty retailers. After being sold to Whole Foods in 2007, the former natural foods chain, Wild Oats, has reinvented itself as a food processor providing high-quality products that are affordable and easy to shop for. Its current organic product lines include canned beans and tomatoes, condiments, cookies, milk, vinegar, pasta sauce, grains, nuts, soups, spices, salads, and pre-packaged sandwiches. Now, Wild Oats is partnering with Walmart to supply a subset of these products to the big-box retailer at reduced prices. Meanwhile, Target has re-organized its displays by aggregating certain natural, organic, and sustainably-focused products to make it easier for consumers to find such items (Wohl, 2014). Keep Reading

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