As more than 300,000 Nebraska kids head back to public school, their congressmen have also returned to Washington just in time to hear Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lobbying them to quickly reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act set to expire this month.
Nebraska National Public Radio reports evidence suggests the 5-year old act, very visibly championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, has helped make the meals school cafeterias serve healthier by increasing standards for vegetables and whole grains while limiting salt and fat. A Centers for Disease Control analysis, for instance, identifies a significant increase in the number of schools serving at least two vegetables and whole grain foods daily.
On the downside, studies still show kids are wasting the food rather than eating it. Thousands of kids across the nation continue to post photos and comments to Twitter under the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama to blame the first lady's pet program for skimpy, wasted and inedible school lunches. And now, according to the NPR report, another unintended consequence is that fewer students are buying lunch. A GAO report from last year showed as many as 1.6 million fewer students eating school lunch at the full price.
"As school cafeterias have cut back on salt, limited their selections of a la carte snacks, and mandated more fruits and vegetables, some school food administrators say it's tougher to keep paying students in the lunch line," NPR says. A recent survey by the School Nutrition Association found that 58 percent of the responding school districts reported a decline in participation in their lunch programs.
Does the school lunch revolt mean new opportunity for the grocer? It can, if you adapt some creative merchandising of the old sandwich/chips/apple routine:
Empower the kids. Guided shopping advice can make an impact on the factor recognized as the No. 1 most important point in getting children to eat healthy, whether at home or at school: Making them feel like they are making the choice for themselves. Help parents offer choices between, say, sandwich types or fruit options, which will help involve the child in the decision, leaving them more likely to eat the offering they find in their lunchbox. Encourage shoppers to take kids along when grocery shopping and let them pick one new fruit or vegetable to try. Sometimes parents need permission to come to the conclusion its not an all-or-nothing proposition: Enticing a child to eat half a healthy lunch because they were involved in the decision is twice as good as having them discard the entire thing. "Don’t get discouraged if your child rejects a food on first taste," advises Dodge County's University of Nebraska Associate Extension Educator for Family and Youth Lisa Poppe. "It can take 15 to 20 tries before a child gets used to a new food."
Other ideas to make the brown-bag lunch more fun, according to Poppe:
Expand it beyond lunch. Empowering children to make their own healthy lunch choices should be part of a wider effort to get them into the kitchen. "Practice good nutrition yourself," Poppe writes. "Children learn by association — you need to be a role model. Discuss with them the benefits of healthy eating." Participation begets acceptance. Parents who start the healthy lunch decision in your aisles and move it to preparing and packaging better nutrition will experience success in moving toward healthful eating--at all meals.
Creatively offer staples. Whole-grain pockets, wraps, pasta or bread cross-merchandised with simple nut butters, cream cheese, fruit jams, cheeses or low-fat meats can still entice kids, if offered creatively. Promote fruits and vegetables that are in season and suggest creative serving ideas. Examples include baby carrots with yogurt dip or other cut vegetables with low-fat dip or hummus. And it's OK to promote small treats that also pack some nutrition: Think healthy muffins or low-fat peanut-butter treats, for instance. Even traditional sweets can help boost lunch consumption if you counsel parents to include only a small portion. Even if junior eats the two cookies first, he's likely to still be hungry enough to be tempted into the (more healthy) remainder packed alongside. Healthy budgeting of sweets throughout the day and week can be one of the most important aspects of overall healthier eating, an aspect the grocer can play an important part in promoting.
Help parents plan. The fastest way to unhealthy lunch is to throw it together as kids are going out the door in the morning. Promote healthy lunch alternative planning as another part of meal planning that begins in your store.
Make lunch your event. Don't fight forces; use them. Look for opportunities to partner with local schools and nutritional advisors to send a co-branded message that healthy choices matter--in the school and in the home--and that you're there to play your rightful role. Connect healthy lunch-related events you may not be involved in with in-store promotion and creative shelf-tagging.
Food giant Walmart announced in late May it would begin requiring farms supplying its animal products to agree to meet certain standards of "humane treatment" of farm animals, including restrictions on use of antibiotics. As part of this latest move, the retailer which reportedly now controls one-fourth of the world's grocery food sales will "ask" all its U.S. fresh and frozen meat, deli, dairy and egg suppliers to watch for and report animal abuse, change buildings and management practices that crowd animals or cause avoidable pain, and write out and report on their animal-welfare policies.
Walmart's action joins those of other retailers and restaurants making similar "voluntary" demands on their suppliers. Burger King, Hyatt and Sodexo have announced they will sell eggs that come from cage-free birds only. Fast-food chain Chipotle claims it sells only “all-natural,” and “antibiotic-free” pork. McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Denny’s and Safeway are just a few of the large food buyers and sellers recently announcing they will begin or have begun to demand farmers stop using gestation crates in raising pigs.
Advocates argue all these moves come in response to growing consumer demand for better animal welfare. “Since 2013, the number of consumers who say it is important that their grocery store practice animal welfare has grown from 17 percent to 21 percent,” says the Food Marketing Institute's June 10 41st annual U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends study. A survey conducted by the American Humane Association, which audits and certifies farms for animal welfare standards, claims 93 percent of nearly 6,000 respondents said buying products from humanely raised animals is "very important," and nearly three-quarters said they would be willing to pay more for it.
But does consumer demand really support Walmart's new dictates? Should community grocers follow along? Here are three good reasons to be cautious about this emerging trend toward demands on production and marketing practices, from traceability to environmental standards to animal-welfare and other “sustainability” claims:
Studies prove the seemingly simple term "animal welfare" covers some complex nuances, says Belgian professor Filiep Vanhonacker, not only in objective terms but also in consumer perception. Some consumers infer animal welfare from a subjective combination of animal-welfare aspects, often clouded and colored by confusing marketing that uses imagery of pastoral farms and "happy" animals. Other consumers may take a more studied and objective approach based on specific standards, but even those can often be unsubstantiated and even contradictory. Case in point of this paradox: Walmart's announced restriction on use of antibiotics could be--and has been--argued by some experts to actually be an impediment to improving animal welfare.
All those uncertainties cloud the real consumer demand picture hiding behind those rosy studies like FMI's.
It's important to bear in mind, Texas Tech ag economist Darren Hudson reminded economics scholars in a 2010 article, companies--like Walmart--have always tried to shape public opinion to differentiate their brands and increase consumers' willingness to pay a better price. But that kind of supply-side manipulation says little about what consumers are really willing to pay for. Hudson cites studies noting that when consumers who say they favor animal-welfare standards are asked if they still favor them if they cost more in price and taxes, their support significantly wanes. He considers the scientific literature supporting true economic impact of animal welfare to be "scant."
The fact is the economics research generally agrees that willingness-to-pay estimates are inflated, due to respondents' tendency to answer based on their own hypothetical assumptions and their unwillingness to give the politically incorrect answer to surveyors. Consumers may in fact be willing to put money on the counter for animal welfare, says Danish ag economics professor Laura Mørch Andersen, but so far it's only to a small degree. "Our results," she writes, "suggest that the stated willingness to pay observed in opinion polls...to a large extent is just cheap talk." Her work cautions retailers to consider the market for higher welfare products to be only a niche market, capable of attracting only certain consumer segments. Walmart's across-the-board requirements are precisely the opposite of the segmented and targeted marketing strategy necessary to make animal-welfare labeling profitable--particularly when you consider the consumer segments being most directly targeted, meat eaters, are the consumer segment that most value taste and related sensory attributes and consistently value them above animal-care issues.
Furthermore, it's important to consider whether consumer demand is being manufactured or inflated by interests like the growing cottage industry in certifying animal farms as humane. American Humane Association, for instance, the same "no animals were harmed in the making of this movie" non-profit that audits commercial movies, shows revenue of about a half million dollars a year and pays out about $1.7 million in expenses on its farm certification program, according to 2014 IRS documents. Although tiny by comparison to WalMart's sales, that kind of money earned from only 10 percent of all animals raised for food demonstrates at least the potential exists to create a demand for welfare auditing even absent any real consumer demand. (Note: American Humane Association did not respond to Farmer Goes to Market's request for clarification on its income and expenses derived from auditing and certifying farms.)
But perhaps the most compelling evidence that consumers say they want voluntary production constraints like Walmart's but won't pay for them comes from the biggest real-world experiment in such practices so far, says University of California at Davis economist Tina Saitone. Numerous studies demonstrate consumers routinely tell surveyors they will buy more organic foods at a price premium, yet the market share for organic in the United States has remained stalled over the last decade at only about 3 percent of food sales. Saitone calls the difference between experimental studies and the real marketplace a "vast chasm."
Saitone's most recent research, scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, deftly takes apart the argument that WalMart's dictates are nothing but free-market "consumer choice" giving shoppers a wider range of choices. In the case of restricting antibiotic use in animals to improve their productivity, Saitone writes in "What Happens when Food Marketers Require Restrictive Farming Practices?" the practice ends up costing all farmers on the production side and all consumers on the consumption side. In a nutshell, she observes, the problem is that most of the food produced by restrictive agreements ends up going into marketing channels in which a premium can't be captured. In other words, even though McDonalds, for instance, may buy 18 percent of a hog in terms of cuts (bacon, sausage, ham), it's not possible to raise a "partially antibiotic-free" hog. That means even though that 18 percent antibiotic-free pork may conceivably earn a premium, the remaining 82 percent that's antibiotic-free but going into conventional channels will have incurred the added cost without hope for added price premium. The same argument could be posed for WalMart's humanely-raised animals. At the end of the day, the demand by such a powerful market entity will increase costs for the entire chain, including you.
It's a reality that free-market philosopher Milton Friedman illuminated more than 40 years ago. In arguing against the then-fashionable trend for businesses to demonstrate their "social responsibilities," the economic theorist and University of Chicago professor objected to small boards of corporate directors imposing such social-justice demands on their customers. By spending somebody else's money to underwrite a general social interest, Friedman believed, big business is in effect imposing a tax by dictate that is counter to the American way. "We have established elaborate constitutional, parlimentary and judicial provisions to control these functions, to assure that taxes are imposed so far as possible in accordance with the preferences and desires of the public--after all, 'taxation with representation' was one of the battle cries of the American Revolution." By short-cutting that process, as Walmart has done, over-bearing big business appoints itself legislator, executive and jurist to decide whom to tax by how much and for what purpose. Walmart's dicates are precisely that kind of extra-governmental regulation in action.
Announcements by Whole Foods that it would require all suppliers to label any products containing genetically modified organisms by 2018, similar though less-specific public relations campaigns by Chipotle and Kashi Foods, and last year's high-profile surrender by General Mills to activist demands to take any genetically modified ingredients out of its Cheerios cereal--all have continued to keep the heat on for some kind of legislative or regulatory demand to label foods containing GMOs.
Some polls show as much as 90 percent support for such labeling in this country, and that kind of popularity has culminated in laws--passed but on hold--in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut, as well as the highly visible but narrowly defeated California ballot initiative Prop 37 last November and similar laws and ballot initiatives in more than 20 states.
All the noise continues to fan the flames but add few answers to the perpetual question: Would a labeling mandate help consumers really make more informed food choices, or would it simply cost the food chain more in return for little meaninful improvement?
Labeling advocates argue the costs to add a GMO label pale in comparison to the normal marketing related labeling changes food companies go through routinely. That kind of oversimplification about the cost of label traits explains why the public sentiment for mandatory labeling is apparently high, says Kansas State ag economist Glenn Tonsor. When government requires labeling, Tonsor argues, consumers see it as costing them little or nothing. He believes that's what lies behind studies showing 75 percent support for mandatory labeling of bST in milk, 64 percent for GMO feeds and 85 percent for growth promotants in beef production. It's easy to be for labeling when it's free. (And, it's notable to point out research shows that kind of popularity falls significantly when respondents find out costs accompany them.)
Meanwhile, even at those relatively low direct costs, according to other research from the mid 2000s, any estimated benefit consumers gain from mandatory labeling of GMO food is less than the accompanying costs of enforcement and testing, reduced consumer choice for shoppers who prefer to buy lower-priced GMO foods, and loss of international trade. Additional work suggests mandatory labeling regulation likely doesn't even deliver on the all-important "consumer choice:" A mandatory label might lead companies to simply abandon GMO products, switch to non-GMO ingredients and drive up costs, and actually end up reducing choice for consumers who would prefer GMO foods--an argument strongly supported by actual experience in Europe. When all is balanced, according to the research, the average consumer risks suffering more economically than he gains from mandatory labling policy.
Still, the great, hotly debated unknown cost is the question of whether forced labeling of GMO products would automatically stigmatize the food as suspicious, leading to large shifts in consumer demand. Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk reports on a series of studies designed to try to test that question in a recent issue of the journal Food Policy. Does labeling simply appease already existing consumer concerns, he asks, or does it actually become "self-fulfilling prophecy," in which the labeling itself causes concern about the technology?
Lusk's series of studies, one with fresh fruit and another with a processed food, put subjects through a series of choices with differing GMO labels, and then gauged their beliefs about the safety of GMO foods and their willingness to pay a price premium to avoid GMOs. Although his results failed to show any significant so-called "signaling effect" caused by the GMO labels large enough to detect with his sample size, he nevertheless believes this work doesn't rule out the possibility a negative label effect could still exist. For one, he writes, a real mandatory law imposed by government likely carries a different level of seriousness in the consumer's mind than a simple lab survey conducted by a researcher. It's not possible for the sterile lab environment to impersonate governmental authority and the media influence that would attend to it. "It must be acknowledged that ‘real world’ effects are possibly more pronounced," Lusk believes.
But his work uncovered two other reasons he believes GMO labels could still signal danger that would sway consumers.
No. 1: His study found consumers were willing to pay significantly more to avoid foods labeled as "containing GMOs" than they were for foods that were voluntarily labeled as ‘‘does not contain GMOs.’’ He believes those differences imply a difference about the negativity the two labels signal relatively. The difference in wording could change consumers beliefs about the likelihood that an unlabeled product contains GMO or doesn't contain GMO, and their likelihood to trust its safety.
No. 2: Another part of his study found consumers were nearly as averse as they were to GMO food as they were to a ‘‘decoy’’ attribute – using ethylene ripening. Atmospheric ethylene is commonly used to control how quickly fruit ripens in storage--the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. As far as Lusk knows, there's no real controversy over the safety of this natural plant hormone. Yet when asked whether produce ripened with ethylene should carry a required label, consumer willingness to pay to have that label equaled the willingness to pay for GMO labeling. That finding at least implies to Lusk that even an apparently innocuous label could cause danger signaling when put into practice.
Walmart announced in late May it would now require the farms supplying its animal products to stop using antibiotic medications simply to make animals grow faster and more efficiently. The company said it now believes antibiotics should only be used for medical purposes--specifically, treatment, control and prevention of diseases--and not for "growth promotion."
"We recognize that antibiotics are one of many critical tools used to keep animals healthy and that they should be used responsibly to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine," the retail giant said in a press release.
This latest move by the retailer who reportedly now controls one-fourth of the world's grocery food sales mirrored a March announcement from the White House announcing a new five-point plan aimed at containing and preventing diseases caused by bacteria that have become able to resist the use of antibiotics to kill them. The final outcome of an order signed by the president in September last year, the plan sets an "ambitious" (in the words of Reuters) goal to both fight emerging diseases and to develop new antibiotic treatments.
As expected, the report charged the U.S. Food & Drug Administration with efforts to "further curtail" the use of antibiotics that are used in human medicine for use in helping livestock and poultry grow better and faster.
But as one farm-industry insider noted, FDA has already been doing just what the White House has now ordered it to do and what Walmart so grandiosely demanded of its suppliers. It's been doing it for several years.
The federal plan has already been in operation for three years... In practicality, there is already no longer any such thing as antibiotic 'growth promotion' use.
One of the Obama plan's stated objectives is to "eliminate the use of medically-important antibiotics for growth promotion...and bring other agricultural uses of antibiotics...under veterinary oversight." That plan has already been in operation for three years, under an FDA effort to work with manufacturers of animal antibiotics to voluntarily stop selling antibiotics for that purpose. Every drug company that had an approval on file with FDA has agreed to do so. So antibiotics are already limited to use in U.S. farm animals for preventing and treating diseases only--in practicality, there is no longer any such thing as "growth promotion" use.
Meanwhile, FDA is moving forward with a regulatory structure known as the "veterinary feed directive"--itself now nearly two decades old--to accomplish the second part of that goal. It will require a veterinarian to oversee all use of those in-feed antibiotics important to human medicine, regardless of where the farmer purchases that feed, much as a doctor writes a prescription for a child's medicine which the consumer is then free to fill at your pharmacy.
It should come as no surprise critics of any use of farm antibiotics complained the White House plan didn't go far enough. "President Obama gets an A for tackling this problem from multiple angles. But in terms of addressing the biggest problem, the troubling overuse and misuse of antibiotics on large factory farms, the administration gets an incomplete," a representative of a coalition of public-interest research groups told Reuters.
But the strident language of those critics masks the kid-glove handling given the misuse of human antibiotics by humans, considering its role in the problem. For the three most urgent threats the White House plan identifies--one, a drug-resistant venerial disease and the other two spread among hospital patients by contaminated equipment and unwashed hands--none are related to food or animal use of antibiotics. Yet among the report's soft language about "prevention programs" and "fostering stewardship" by those hospitals and public-health agencies there's no similar language about "eliminating" the use of antibiotics in humans, nor for imposing tighter controls on companies like Walmart who use them as loss leaders.
That stricter regulation is reserved only for farm antibiotics, despite research that continues to demonstrate more than half the antibiotic prescriptions doctors write for childhood ailments are entirely useless against the organism causing the ailment. That means doctors write more than 11 million useless antibiotic prescriptions a year for children alone. The Obama plan is silent on any restrictions to force elimination of those potentially harmful prescriptions.
In the 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas, liberal political pundit Thomas Frank mocked the propensity of mostly blue-collar Kansans to consistently vote politically against their own vested economic interests. Now, Oklahoma Ag Economist Jayson Lusk has surveyed shoppers to point out a similar contradiction for California egg consumers.
Lusk asked a sample of consumers, “In 2008, 63 percent of voters in California voted to ban the use of small cages for egg-laying hens. However, at the time around 90 percent to 95 percent of the eggs Californians purchased came from small cages, and only 5 percent to 10 percent were cage free. So, a majority of voters voted to ban a product that a majority of shoppers routinely bought. Why do you think there is such a gap between how people voted and how they shopped for different types of eggs?”
Here's how Lusk categorized the open-ended responses he received: