All posts tagged genetically modified food

The Parent-Child Relationship: Why Annie’s and General Mills Will Work

When I read the news Monday of the purchase of Annie’s Homegrown (NYSE: BNNY) to General Mills (NYSE: GIS) for $820 million I was stunned. Quickly, however, my surprise shifted to disbelief with myself that I didn’t see it coming given the path of Annie’s over recent years. Of course selling to a larger company was part of the grand plan, and thus, another parent-child relationship begins.

Working on the Kashi brand (acquired by Kellogg in 2000) for many years, I learned a few things about navigating these kinds of relationships. Today, as a consultant to the food and beverage industry, I’ve identified a pattern in the parent-child relationship and have come to understand that despite best intentions by all, the pitfalls and missteps are less about the specific attributes of the companies in question and more about the larger influencing factors of today’s marketplace that are all too often given priority. Unfortunately, Annie’s now faces the challenge of avoiding a stereotypic experience in the arc of acquisition, expanded distribution and profit, brand dilution (largely due to operational streamlining and decreased risk tolerance) and ultimate failure.

Act like a Bull Not an Ostrich in Today’s Food Climate

Individually, both Annie’s and General Mills are at the top of my list of companies who are doing it right in today’s food climate. Figuring out how to maintain relevance and leadership in the midst of the food awakening that is our country’s current Food Movement, Annie’s and General Mills have taken a bullish approach in their own size-appropriate way, maintaining a strong voice in the debate (Annie’s mostly) and making strategic changes in business practices that have been rewarded by shareholders in today’s tough climate (General Mills). Given this behavior and spirit, both companies bring compelling factors to their new relationship:

  • With other natural and organic brand acquisitions (Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, LARABAR, Food Should Taste Good), General Mills demonstrates an awareness and acceptance of where packaged food is heading. Spending well over a million dollars to block GMO labeling initiatives may seem at odds (even hypocritical) to this behavior, but that’s where those “larger influencing factors of today’s marketplace” come into play and the saying, “the best defense is a good offense” rings true. To their credit, they are evolving their business in the right direction even if they are hedging their bet through financial contributions along the way.
  • Annie’s has a strong foundation of 25 years from which to solidify its reason for being in the world. Its philosophy in the areas of nutrition and people/planet health is established and, maybe more importantly, are clear keys to their success in market.
  • Annie’s is positioned for massive growth. From a successful VC incubation period that ultimately led to going public and the steady increases in product distribution and consumer awareness, short of a major mistake (and I don’t believe this is it), they really can’t fail right now.
  • From a timing perspective, we are years in at this point to the modern Food Movement debate and, as a result, both companies have had a good amount of time to demonstrate their positions on the big issues. If nothing else, this should provide all of the skeptics with some comfort in that both companies are less apt to do an about face on their stance and behavior.

Mom/Dad, You Don’t Always Know What’s Best

Purely from a business perspective, the parent-child relationship is all about diversifying the portfolio and mitigating risk. If you’ve ever worked with a financial advisor, you know that it’s just not smart to have all your money in bonds or in aggressive growth stocks. Spreading your money around is the safe bet, and so it is with large food companies. To a large degree, Annie’s represents an aggressive growth stock opportunity for General Mills, and from this perspective, it’s just business…no people and planet health aspirations required.

Taking the financial planning analogy a step further; being a successful financial advisor requires understanding where the market is heading. Identifying what’s big today is easy, real success happens when you are able to predict what will be big tomorrow. And that, General Mills (and all you other really big companies gobbling up the little guys), is what you need to keep in mind when you get your hands on Annie’s and start looking for opportunities to streamline processes and optimize systems.

Annie’s was born out of the beliefs that are leading the evolution of food and health in our culture today. Their philosophy was not adopted based on market trends and consumer insights data, it is part of their DNA, and when something is part of your DNA, you intuitively use it to guide every decision. It cannot be wrong because it exists from a consciousness that has evolved and survived through generations and across cultures.

On paper the Annie’s business looks a bit risky because they have chosen to do things that are not yet proven out in the market. They are attractive because their bets to date may payout big, but their aggressive behavior may also lead them to fail.

General Mills, I Challenge You to Parent Differently

So, Parent Company, this is where you have an opportunity to parent differently. Instead of guiding your child to be more conservative, more like her peers, more like you, stop. Expand your perspective to not only prioritize financial strategy but moral ethics as well. Honor the unique beliefs and attributes of your child and consider if their perspective isn’t just sweet innocence but inherent intelligence.

Taking this approach with Annie’s will be hard for General Mills. I’m sure there will be pushback internally within the business, it will mean living with complication, taking more risks and getting comfortable with a greater degree of uncertainty. It will mean going against tradition, instead of molding the child to fit the parent, it will mean changing the parent to emulate the child.

I think General Mills has what it takes. We’ll all just have to wait and see.

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Image by QUARTZ

The GMO Debate: Does it Really Matter?

If you’ve read any of my posts on GMO, you know that I’ve been following a Grist reporter for the past few months, Nathaniel Johnson, on his deep dive into the science and issues behind GMO.  Over the many years I’ve been tracking this issue, I’ve often wished I could do what Johnson is doing…really pick apart the arguments in search of the un-spun, facts only truth.  It’s a heated topic and finding the straight story through all influencing factors and misguided science is a daunting task.  I think Johnson’s done a fabulous job.  He’s a brave guy.

His article last week, What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters, got my attention.  My initial thought was, “Crap!  He’s giving up.”  Fortunately, that’s not the case, and how he got to his conclusion that none of it matters is pretty compelling.

He argues that the debate isn’t actually about GMO, otherwise, due to the wide-range of differences in modification and application, we’d be debating about individual GM plants.  I couldn’t agree more and have often been frustrated due to the same observation.  Genetic engineering is used in a range of applications: for the creation of medicines, to support the biodegradation of plastics, and others.  It’s not just about creating corn and soy plants that can withstand increasing levels of toxic herbicides.

The real truth is the topic of GMO is important because it’s facilitating a much larger philosophical debate about things that may only be loosely connected to the actual subject of genetic engineering.  As Johnson states,

People care about GMOs because they symbolize corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet. On the other side, people care about GMOs because they symbolize the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science.

This assessment certainly fits the bill for me.  I’ve lost sleep worrying about our country’s unsustainable mono-cropping approach to agriculture (yes, truly).  I feel sick when I think about the subsidization of a select number of crops that creates mass quantities of cheap, un-healthy food and as a result is literally fueling the growing obesity epidemic, not only in the United States, but in all the other developing countries that emulate America.  As I’ve stated before, I think there’s a role for GMO and the best way to move forward is thoughtfully and transparently (i.e. labeling).  Honestly, if I had to choose between getting rid of the current subsidization practices for corn and soy and GMO, I think I’d choose the former.  It’s a silly “either/or” question, but it does confirm to me that Johnson is spot on about GMO not really being about GMO.

So, does it really matter where we net out on GMO?  Johnson thinks not (you should really read his article to understand why).  I’m not sure I’m ready to agree completely.  However, even if GMO isn’t the real issue, maybe using it as a decoy for what we’re really debating is an acceptable if not dysfunctional way to create positive change.  Whatever works, right?

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Image by Steve Rhodes

The Future of Food Labeling

Although small in number, the factors most likely to evolve food labeling laws in 2014 and beyond are rapidly increasing tensions among the various stakeholders in the food industry.  From unprecedented levels of litigation at the state level, to coordinated social media campaigns by special interest groups and a food movement built upon a foundation of increased transparency and simplicity, it seems a perfect storm may be brewing and, like it or not, government is going to have to move the evolution of food labeling laws up the priority list.  Here are some of my predictions for what we can expect to see in 2014 and beyond…

There are few housekeeping issues that are likely to be tidied up by government next year.  After many years of waiting, a FDA proposed rule to evolve the Nutrition Facts panel is likely to be released and will address a range of simple improvements such as adjusting serving sizes, daily values and creating space for additional nutrient declarations.  The Food Labeling Modernization Act has also been introduced to the House and, if passed, would establish a front of pack labeling system, require declaration of products containing caffeine and added sugar and institute a definition for natural.  Given the range of issues covered in this Act, I (along with most other experts) have very little confidence that it will pass.  Other minor improvements that I expect to see in 2014 include the removal of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from partially hydrogenated oils (which create trans fats) and an evolved whole grain content criteria statement.

I do not believe government will use 2014 to officially weigh in on some of the key issues fueling the current food movement, i.e. GMO and the definition of natural.  Inaction on these issues means the debate will continue to take place through litigation and social media.  Overall, government will continue their Band-Aid approach, tweaking current systems while standing on the sidelines of more fundamental issues.

Making predictions beyond 2014 is a bit trickier, but I have to believe that at some point the tension created from allowing issues to evolve on a state by state level and through increasingly more polarized special interest platforms will become so great that government will have no choice but to step into the fray.  My bets for what this may look like include:

  1. A sweeping overhaul to current nutrition labels. Nutrition labels are given so much real estate on pack and have so much opportunity to communicate, they absolutely have the ability to work harder than they do currently to communicate on issues consumers want information about.
  2. A national labeling standard for GMO.  Whether this will communicate a presence or absence is not as important as the fact that a national standard must be issued.  Similar to the path for organic, starting with state by state standards, a national standard for GMO labeling is inevitable.
  3. A definition of natural.  It is stunning that although “natural” has been one of the most used marketing terms in food for years, current guidance by FDA/USDA on this term is woefully lacking.  Although the term natural and the issue of GMO are not one in the same, they often travel together in debate and as a result we may see clarification of natural simply due to action on GMO.
  4. Increased restrictions around structure/function claims.  Versus continuing to allow the communication of both attributes and benefits, I see government evolving toward regulations seen in other developed countries in Europe and Canada where marketing communications are in large part restricted only to attributes.  In many ways, this change alone would solve many of the issues fueling current litigation and confusion at the consumer level.

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Image by Grocery Manufacturers Association

Transparency is the New Marketing

I write this post while anxiously waiting for confirmation on the passage or failure of WA State Initiative 522 that would require labeling of food products using GMO ingredients sold in the state.  Numbers are still rolling in from yesterday’s vote and even though many say it doesn’t look good, it’s still officially too close to call.  It’s no surprise the race is close – it was another David and Goliath battle, similar to the version in my own home state of California last year.  The No on 522 Campaign spent a record-setting $22M to defeat the bill.  The fact that the race is close given this statistic alone is in some way a sign of success for advocates of GMO labeling regardless of the ultimate outcome.

As I’ve said in previous posts on the issue of GMO, questions of technology and safety are, in my mind, less significant to the issue of transparency.  GMO may be good, it may be bad (if my opinion counts, I think it’s probably a mix of both), but without transparency about where it’s being used we cannot engage in a fair, thoughtful and productive debate.

To me, GMO is just an excellent poster child for the issue we are really talking about here; transparency.  Because GMO isn’t the only issue to be concerned about in our food supply today.  We could be talking about the additives and chemicals used to grow and process our foods, or the impact of concentrated animal farming operations on the health of the planet or the fallacy consumers are led to believe that anything is possible when it comes to nutrition and calories.  How we grow, transport, process and market our food is shrouded in a seemingly blissful ignorance fueled almost entirely by a lack of transparency.

Just yesterday, Mark Bittman published an article in the New York Times exposing the purchase of the world’s largest pork producer, based in the United States, by the Chinese.  This article is a perfect illustration of the highly complex and global food system we now function within, largely under the radar of most Americans.  This purchase has many benefits for the Chinese.  For the United States, the benefits are singular in focus.  There is certainly a short-term economic security to be gained, but at the cost of perpetuating a food system that will most certainly speed the decline of people and planet health.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with the head of communications and marketing of the leading organic produce supplier in the country and she had a great line, “transparency is the new marketing”.  Although food brands seem to be moving, both willingly and unwillingly, at varying rates of speed toward this truth, it is happening.  And what’s powerful about this shift is that it will force a change in our food supply, because, marketers rarely share bad news.  So, if telling the straight story is what’s in vogue, getting the food production “house”, so to speak, in order is going to be required.

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Thank you, Stonyfield, for your example and image.

How I’m Moving Forward in the GMO Food Debate

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, The Genetically Modified Food Debate, which introduced a series of articles by Nathanael Johnson, a writer that’s taken on the big task of sorting through the GMO debate to provide the straight story on where the science, politics and implications to people and planet truly stand.

As someone who’s followed the topic of GMO for many years, I’ve often wished for a series of articles just like this.  It’s a heroic effort and having the opportunity to go on an exploration of sorts through these articles has helped me crystalize what I believe are the biggest issues and necessary next steps in the GM food debate.  If you’d like to read Johnson’s series, you can start here and find links to subsequent posts at the bottom of each article.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that as humans we are hard-wired to experiment, research and evolve our understanding of the world.  Given what I know of evolution and farming, biotechnology seems like a logical place for exploration in science.  It’s in the application of this science that things can get complicated.  My sense is that, like most things, the best scenario for people and planet as it relates to GMO is toward the center from either side of the extreme.

My primary concern about genetically engineered food crops is not so much about the study of biotechnology in plants, but the ripple effect the application of these crops is having on current farming practices and our global food community.  Here are some of the things I find most troubling:

  • GMO are often bred for resistance to herbicides and pesticides.  As a result, weed-killing herbicide use on genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton increased by 383 million pounds in the U.S. from 1996 to 2008.
  • GM crops support the practice of mono-cropping (growing only one type of agricultural product in a large area of land, year after year).  This approach has an economic benefit in that it simplifies farming operations and decreases labor costs.  However, mono-cropping depletes nutrients from the soil and decreases crop-yields over time creating a need for increased synthetic fertilizer use.  Although there may be a short-term economic gain, there’s a larger long-term cost to the health of the planet.
  • Implementation of GMO and mono-cropping practices in developing countries has impacts that go beyond just human and planet health.  Traditional knowledge about how to farm the land, what indigenous plants provide nutrients of need and seed saving techniques to maintain biodiversity…all this wisdom that is passed from generation to generation may be lost and, maybe more importantly, be seen as inferior to modern conventional methods.

The biggest hurdle to finding a path forward that is acceptable to groups on both sides of this issue seems to sit within science.  Through Johnson’s articles, it’s clear that the methods we have to determine safety and the impact to human and planet health are flawed.  The questions we’re asking through testing simply do not provide the answers many people are seeking to understand.  This is an issue that’s much bigger than just GMO, but yet one that is effectively stalling the ability of the food community to find consensus about how to move forward.  Until we evolve both the methods of testing and what we’re testing for, I don’t see how we’re going to come together.

So, what to make of all this?  Well, as for me, I plan to keep looking and hoping for an evolution in testing, particularly in the form of support from our government to investigate new approaches to better answer the valid concerns around GMO’s impact to people and planet health.  In the meantime, as we continue to navigate our way to better answers, I believe the right thing to do is provide as much transparency and through that, education, as possible.  We don’t have the answers, and until such a time that we do and this matter is settled, why not let people make their own decisions?  Let’s label GM foods, raise awareness and hopefully get to a place where we can argue toward solutions.

If you’re interested in doing some digging of your own into this issue, Johnson also did a recent article that provides a “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the most popular books on GMO.  You can read this article here.

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Image by Tambor Acai

Whole Foods Market and Monsanto – Really, People?

Since the beginning of the year, Whole Foods Market has been dealing with a set of rumors all relating to a relationship with Monsanto. One rumor is that that they have been purchased by the multinational agriculture biotech company. Another is that the two companies are at least cavorting together to support the deregulation of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops such as alfalfa in the United States. My immediate reaction to these rumors is to laugh. I mean, really. Really? Would anyone who knows anything about these companies actually believe such nonsense?

But here’s the thing that really irritates me about these rumors…Whole Foods Market is STILL dealing with them, more than two months after publicly addressing and dismissing them on their blog and, more importantly, after making one of the most profound public commitments to addressing the GMO labeling issue a retailer has ever made.

I’ve seen this type of attack on a major brand play out multiple times in past years and it really bothers me. Despite what your feelings may be of large companies such as Whole Foods Market or even Wal-Mart, they have one thing that is undeniable – power to change the system. When, in 2006, Wal-Mart announced a commitment to sell more organic food, awareness and availability of organic expanded dramatically. Similarly, when Whole Foods Market announced this past March that beginning in 2018 they will require products in their stores to label if they contain GMO, they triggered a ripple effect in the food community that will result in more organic farmland, more organic food options and maybe even federal action on the issue of GMO labeling.

In reality, the people and groups behind the Whole Foods Market and Monsanto rumors are probably very small in number and do not impact the vast majority of those who care about natural and organic food options.  However, a small group, if organized, can demand a lot of time and attention from the company/brand to manage. What if, instead of forcing Whole Foods Market to spend time strategizing about how best to squelch nonsense rumors, they were given the opportunity to focus on the best ways to support healthy, sustainable food options for their consumers and our country?

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Image from Whole Foods Market Blog

Silk Opts out of “Natural”

7 silk opts out of soy imageThe claim “natural” has exploded over the last ten years on everything from potato chips to t-shirt fabric to mattress bedding.  So, it’s especially interesting that Silk, a leading manufacturer of soy and other non-dairy beverages, made a recent announcement that they have decided to remove this claim from their products.

The term “natural” is messy for sure.  Largely left open for interpretation due to a lack of regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, what it means in terms of a standard is left up to the companies creating and marketing the products.  Responsibility ultimately falls to the consumer, to do their own research to determine which brands fit with their expectations for what a natural product should be.

Some of you may remember that back in early 2009, Silk received quite a bit of negative press for silently making a switch to non-organic soy beans for their soymilk.  It is a misstep they seem to have recovered from, but I have to assume the experience taught a valuable lesson on transparency and had a major influence on their decision to so publically detail this decision and the reasoning behind it.

Personally, I think it was a good move.  Although “natural” is a powerful term and one I am personally quite connected to, I am bothered by its lack of clarity and wish for claims that more clearly guide positive choices for consumers.

For now, “USDA Organic” and “Non-GMO Project Verified” are some of the best ways to credibly communicate clean food.  Until the FDA or a reputable non-governmental organization steps in to regulate the term, “natural” will continue to be vague.

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Thank you, Silk, for the use of your images.

Natural Products Expo West – Show Re-cap

From early morning yoga classes to a well-timed GMO labeling announcement by Whole Foods Market, Natural Products Expo West 2013, the largest natural products expo in the country, delivered once again on its reputation as the epicenter for all things “natural”.  If you read my previous post, you’ll know I love to make predictions about the show and that I’d marked a few different brands I was looking forward to connecting with.

While I predicted pea protein would be the “it” ingredient of the show, I realize my prediction may be a bit premature.  Versus highlighting this ingredient specifically, a major focus for food brands was on “soy free” proteins and claims.  Although pea was certainly in the ingredient mix, other soy alternatives such as grass-fed whey and brown rice were often part of the protein blend as well.  Focusing on “soy free” claims versus the ingredients themselves may be a reflection of a need to shift more gradually with consumers…stay-tuned as I think we will see more specific ingredient callouts in 2014 and beyond.

A new brand I disco6 Expo West imagevered at the show and fell in love with is Elli Quark.  Quark is a German form of soft cheese (think pureed cottage cheese minus the sodium).  The company was founded by a woman, who with the help of her husband, created a higher protein, lower sugar competitor to the booming Greek yogurt market.  With 80-90 calories, 14 grams of protein and clean ingredients, I’m super excited to see what happens with this brand.

The topic of GMO was a theme across categories throughout the show this year.  Whereas the Non-GMO Project, the leading 3rd party certifier of Non-GMO Verified products, felt as though it was still working to get on the radar in 2012, this year their verification label could be seen everywhere.  And the announcement by Whole Foods Market to enforce GMO labeling at their stores starting in 2018 managed to officially light the topic on fire.  Although I doubt Whole Food’s threat to electively label in their stores will be necessary by 2018 (federal labeling will likely exist before then), the changes it will create throughout the food and agricultural community as brands shift ingredients to organic and identity preserved sources will have a major impact on our food supply.

And although my fears regarding a lack of transparency around ingredient sourcing and processing were confirmed within the dietary supplement side, I was incredibly impressed by a relatively new traceability program, Meet Your Herbs, by Gaia Herbs.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve always respected Gaia Herbs for their transparency when it comes to their ingredient standards.  They’ve now taken it to a whole new level where consumers can enter an ID code located on each product into a program on their website to trace each ingredient back to its source.  It’s an amazing demonstration for not just the dietary supplement industry, but all industries for what is possible when it comes to providing transparency.  I look forward to other brands in the natural health and medicine community following suit.

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My Recent Interview on the Cancer Radio Program: Five to Thrive

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 1.37.00 PM (2)My friend and colleague, Dr. Lise Alschuler, recently asked me to be a guest on the radio program, Five to Thrive, that she and her business partner, Karolyn A. Gazella, co-host every weeknight on W4CS.

Lise is one of the leading cancer experts in the naturopathic community and she and Karolyn have based their radio show on their book, Five to Thrive, which pinpoints five specific pathways that are essential to preventing cancer: immunity, inflammation, hormones, insulin resistance, and detoxification/digestion.

Have a listen to my interview where I talk about the history of our modern food movement, genetically modified foods and the power of food as medicine. Thanks, Lise and Karolyn! Who knew radio could be so much fun!


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