The quiet revolution of food retailers

While many debates continue in the political and “parapolitical” world about many aspects of food production systems and the impact of human activity on the environment, retailers lead a quiet revolution. Without making the headlines, they gradually change the way their suppliers will do business in the years to come.

Such an evolution is certainly welcome, especially in a time where important decisions need to be made. Political leaders seem unable to reach any agreement on environmental issues, as the world could see at the late Climate Summit of Copenhagen. In the food sector, there are many discussions going on about sustainability and genetic engineering, to name the two hottest items, but the political class does not seem to generate clear and concrete action plans.

Just like what happened in the 1990s about food safety in Europe, retailers are taking the initiative to create momentum on the current issues. The problems that plagued the food industry in Europe, such as salmonella in poultry, the mad cow disease, or the dioxin in Belgian fat for chicken feed showed a number of weaknesses that needed to be addressed. In the case of BSE, UK retailers did not wait for British or European legislation to demand meat and bone meal-free feed for farm animals. As I was working for a company supplying the UK market with chicken meat, I can testify that these were dramatic times. Tough decisions had to be made on a very short notice that had serious financial consequences. By then, a couple of reasons made the retailers took the lead. First, the inability of the government to prevent and tackle the issues was creating a bit of a vacuum on leadership. Consumer confidence in their institutions was fading, and retailers were the only ones, true or not, perceived to take the proper actions to protect the public. The second reason was the fact that many retailers had their own private labels. In this case, the problem was not the supplier’s problem anymore because the supermarket chain could have risked serious PR damage if a food safety issues would have been associated with their brand.

This time, retailers are again in the position where they can present themselves as the consumers’ champions. Legislation is slow to move and make significant decisions. The involvement of interest groups adds to the infighting and delays decision-making.

To prepare for the future, they already have come out with plans and communication on how and where they want the food they sell to be produced, and they try to offer a choice to consumers. By doing so, the most active among them are setting new standards, and forcing the whole production and supply chain to think about the things to come.

In previous blog posts, I have mentioned some of such initiatives, and in Future Harvests, I described the increasing leadership role of food retail in agricultural practices.

In particular, I mentioned the carbon footprint labelling on dairy products by Tesco, Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index questionnaire to suppliers, and the seafood sustainability programs of many retailers. Marks & Spencer started their Plan A in 2007 with the objective of making their business more sustainable. To achieve this, they are involving their suppliers and the farmers producing for them to carry out the changes that M&S finds necessary for a better future.

More recently, new initiatives indicate that retailers are pursuing further on such initiatives. Wal-Mart came last week with their plan for sustainable agriculture. In the UK, Sainsbury let know last week that they were committing GBP40 million to invest in farming. Earlier this week, Carrefour unveiled their “Reared without GMO” program. In their stores in France, they will sell 300 food items labelled as being GMO-free, to offer consumer a choice based on transparent information. If Carrefour ventures into this, one can be sure that they do so because they already know that this will be good for their business. By gaining market share, it is very likely that their competitors will soon react by issuing similar programs. The EU Commission may be struggling to figure out how to deal with GMOs, but Carrefour says “Let the consumers tell us!” Vox populi, vox dei!

Of course, such initiatives do not please everyone. Today, I could read in a blog for a US magazine backed by the meat industry some interesting reactions about Carrefour’s new plan. Some readers were bringing up the typical arguments. Meat would be so expensive in Europe. Well, meat is quite affordable in France, even without GMOs, so think again! The other argument was about freedom of choice: people should be able to eat what they want. By labelling its food item, Carrefour does just that. French consumers are free to buy at Carrefour or somewhere else, and they have the right to choose what label they prefer. The freedom of choice is ironic coming from the US meat lobby, since American consumers do not have that freedom. Reared with GMOs is pretty much the only choice in the US. For now, that is. However, it is interesting to see on Carrefour’s press release that the pictures of fish, chicken and pork chops are exactly the same, regardless of whether they would be grown with or without GMOs.

In the 1990s, British and European consumers, and retailers, were challenging food industry practices because they were worried about their health and about the lack of transparency about food. Nowadays, in the USA, consumers are increasingly suspicious of their agribusiness, because they are worried about their health and the lack of transparency of the industry. Beef recalls because of E. coli, egg recalls because  of salmonella, spinach contaminated with manure are in the news on a (too) regular basis. They are also increasingly aware, and suspicious, of the relations between interest groups and their government agencies, and how this influences decisions on what they eat.

Retailers are now saying that they are not waiting for politicians to make decisions. They have defined their vision, they know what they want, and they are passing the message on to the suppliers. What would happen in agribusiness USA if Wal-Mart took a similar approach as Carrefour?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Nanotechnology: the next controversial subject?

Nanotechnology is the technology of building structures from atoms, molecules or molecular clusters to make materials and devices that have new properties. It is a new field in agriculture and food production, but it offers a wide variety of applications that can help overcome a number of problems we are facing today. They can help improve food safety, traceability, reduce the use of chemicals and reduce waste.

Thanks to nanotechnology, agriculture and food production will be able to use very efficient devices and sensors that can help make better and faster decisions.

For instance, in “Controlled Environment Agriculture”, which is an intensive hydroponics greenhouse system used in the USA, in the European Union and in Japan, nanotechnology is a great fit for the already sophisticated computerized management that optimizes growing conditions.

There is also a lot of potential for precision farming, in which nanoparticles can be used to store and release pesticides and herbicides in a targeted and controlled manner. Nano-clay capsules can store fertilizers and release them slowly, allowing only one application during the cycle of the crop, thus saving time and fuel to the farmer. This helps reducing the use of chemicals, too. Further, nanosensors can be used to measure crop growth, help diagnose diseases even before the farmer can visually notice them, or help him carry out microbiological tests and get results within an hour. The use of nanosensors also helps the farmer make better decisions and act effectively faster than today, as they can help him monitor soil moisture, temperature, pH, nitrogen availability, and in the future could open the path toward a remote farm surveillance system.

In the area of pest control, using nanocapsules is useful in the system called “Integrated Pest Management”. Not only, the problems can be identified earlier, but also plants can be treated much more effectively. Giving treatment to farm animals also can benefit from this technology, which is already used in human medicine.

Nanotechnology is already used for water treatment, and there seem to be many possibilities in that particular field to help solve existing environmental problems. For instance, the American firm Altairnano from Reno, NV produces lanthanum nanoparticles that have the ability to absorb phosphates in water, which offers interesting possibilities to reduce algae growth in ponds and rivers.

Similar applications of nanotechnology can be used to decontaminate soils and groundwater by using iron particles that help break down dioxins and PCBs into less toxic carbon compounds. They also can help remove arsenic from drinking water, a problem that occurs in many regions.

Agriculture is not the only field where this technology can bring benefits, but the food production industry is very interested by the possibilities, too. Some nanodevices can be used to tags food items. This can be of great use to ensure traceability and to help optimize the supply chain. Large retailers like Wal-Mart and Tesco are investigating such devices made out of silicon, but it appears to be too costly at this early stage. We can be sure that this will change in the future.

Food packaging is an area with interesting potential, and there are new packaging materials in development. The nanotechnology helps reducing the risks of food contamination. Some systems reduce the ability for oxygen and gases to travel through the plastic wrap, which extends the shelf life of the product. Other food packaging systems are aimed at controlling the level of humidity, of oxygen, as well as reduce bacteria counts and eliminate any problems of odor and flavor. Antibacterial packaging using nanosilver particles is in development and the applications range from plastic cling wrap to plastic bags, containers, even teapots and kitchenware. Packaging containing nanosensors are made of carbon nanotubes or of titanium dioxide that can be activated by UV help detect microorganisms, toxic protein or food spoilage. The firm AgroMicron, from Hong Kong, has developed a spray which contains a luminescent protein that has been engineered to bind to the surface of microbes such as Salmonella and E. coli. When it is bound, it emits a visible glow, which allows the detection of contaminated food or beverages much more easily.

Developing “molecular food manufacturing” which consists of building food from component atoms and molecules is already a possibility that some are considering. Although such a development is far into the future, such a technology could allow a more efficient and sustainable food production in which less raw materials are consumed, and food that would be obtained would have a higher nutritional quality.

Nanotechnology obviously offers interesting possibilities for food production. Yet, some people express a number of concerns. This is what can bring the next controversy in the food business.

The problem is that nanotechnology in food is relatively new, and we know very little about the long-term effects of using these components. Moreover, because it is so young, food safety regulations are not properly written to deal with this, and the status of the nanoproducts is unclear. One of the concerns is that such particles are very active and very reactive because of their size; and by the nature of the chemicals that they are made of; they could bring health risks as well.

There are new very promising possibilities, but we must be vigilant and address the risks as well, and true progress is about to use this new technology, for our benefit.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Consulting Group Ltd.

Wal-Mart’s Yiannas promotes food safety culture

This article reports of Mr. Yiannas (VP Food Safety at Wal-Mart) speaking at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Executive Conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., and his views on this topic.

It just shows that there is a new trend coming in the US, as I happened to describe in my article of yesterday (Health and environment as the drivers of food production). There are growing concerns from consumers and the retail will probably be the catalyst for change. Wal-Mart as the leading retailer is going to pave the way forward, just like it does on sustainability. This certainly is going to mean some deep changes in the way the suppliers will have to run their businesses.