Food Chain News - July 7

The summer of 2016 hasn’t been a snoozer news-wise. From Brexit and all the attendant trade implications, to the opening of the Panama Canal extension, supply chain issues are popping up on the front page. What’s holding your attention amid so much international and national noise?

Food prices — along with prices for other retail goods — are likely on the rise in the U.K. in the wake of Brexit, according to some experts. The falling value of the British Pound and the large percentage of imported foods could add up to increases even before the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (E.U.) takes effect. 

And British farmers are worried about the future of agriculture in the U.K. Some 60 percent of British food exports are sold to the E.U., a scenario farmers don’t want to see interrupted. In addition, migrant farm workers who now enjoy relative freedom of movement within the E.U. may be stymied at borders, resulting in a potential labor shortage. 

On the other hand, price increases may only be temporarily high as markets struggle to re-evaluate the cost of doing business with Europe and the uncertainty around the long range effect of the breakup. And, like the Russian response to E.U. food sanctions, the U.K. may be incentivized to grow more of its own food, shifting labor to innovative British farms. This wouldn’t be the first time British agriculture re-invented itself.

English Stilton cheese enjoys certain regional protections as long as the U.K. is part of the European Union. Those protections will need to be renegotiated as part of Britain's departure from the E.U.

English Stilton cheese enjoys certain regional protections as long as the U.K. is part of the European Union. Those protections will need to be renegotiated as part of Britain's departure from the E.U.

Specialty goods made in Britain for export may also be affected by Brexit, say some concerned producers. The E.U. has provisions to protect the heritage of certain traditionally made or regionally famous delicacies from cheaper imitators. For those protections to remain for the  producers of English Stilton cheese or Cornish sea salt, specific negotiations will be required as part of any future trade deals. “My fear is that it's going to get lost in everything else that's being discussed," said Matthew O'Callaghan, who leads the U.K. Protected Food Names Association.

The noise associated with Brexit will subside and issues such as regional specialities will surface intact. Nothing seems to change the need for individuals and nations to embrace foods as part of a culture.

For an early summary of Brexit’s affect on the food sector, check out Rabobank’s analysis.

And, just in case you think cosmopolitan Londoners are all crying in their curries, a new app lets people enjoy a chef-prepared meal in a homey setting. EatAbout is the AirBNB for diners, connecting users with chefs serving meals IN THEIR OWN HOMES. Alas, it’s only available in London — for now.

American food entrepreneurs have been experimenting with this model for a year or so now. We increasingly see food startups that submit plans for sending chef-prepared meals to your home or, even send the chef to your home. In the end, these services may be another version of traditional catering services. 

And in other major world news, which was pretty well overshadowed by Brexit coverage, the Panama Canal expansion opened officially on June 24 (see the comprehensive history of the project on FoodandCity.org). From a food perspective, the new capacity for larger ships — aka, the Panamax — means that imports from Asia will no longer have to be trucked across the U.S. from Long Beach to the East Coast. The ships — including massive refrigerated vessels — will pass right through to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, to retrofitted ports in Florida and New Jersey.

The Panama Canal expansion opened in late June. The changes will allow MUCH larger cargo ships to pass through the continental opening, dramatically increasing the number of Asian imports that reach the East Coast by ship. Photo by Mike Kelley.

The Panama Canal expansion opened in late June. The changes will allow MUCH larger cargo ships to pass through the continental opening, dramatically increasing the number of Asian imports that reach the East Coast by ship. Photo by Mike Kelley.

Keep in mind that it some of the key ports do not yet have the capacity to deal with the bigger ships. The ability to expand ports may develop new routes for food entering and leaving the U.S. 

Here at home, California’s five-year epic drought continues unabated. Yet food prices are down, on average, and food shortages — or even food riots — haven’t occurred. Why? One expert says, “The reactions of California farmers, foreign producers, and domestic consumers to the drought highlight a few key lessons for food security moving forward.”

The effect of factors such as weather take a long time to appear — and sometimes they don’t appear. The futures market for food commodities is one of the reasons; a drought this summer may affect the food futures market, but not that lettuce in your grocery cart this week. 

Walmart, the country’s largest grocery retailer, is putting its impressive weight behind food labels: Specifically, standardizing the “best if used by” indicators on its private label non-perishable products. The move is an attempt to reduce confusion among consumers about whether a product is safe to consume — and, thus, to reduce the amount of uneaten food that gets tossed each year, which some estimates put at $29 billion worth.

The whole question of what is safe and what isn’t safe to eat was once again complicated by this week’s release of a statement signed by more than 100 Nobel laureates admonishing Greenpeace for its position on GMO food. The debate about food safety continues to unfold as science and technology and food are increasingly co-dependents. 

Finally, in a long-awaited shake-up, some major food companies are phasing out artificial dyes in their products. Whether to protect children from arguable ill effects from the colorings or simply as a reaction to shifts in consumer preferences, companies such as Kraft Heinz and ConAgra are reformulating some of their recipes — not a simple process, says Morningstar analyst Erin Lash: “It's not just a matter of flipping a switch. It takes time to replicate these colors with natural ingredients." Does this mean that Kool-Aid will be beet-colored from now on?

My favorite food dye comes from cochineal, an insect that produces a luscious red. Used by Mayans and Aztecs, you may have eaten foods made from insect juice. Sound yummy? 

If you’ve got ideas to contribute to the food system, enter our third annual Food+City Challenge Prize, now open for submissions. We want to hear from innovators, big thinkers and entrepreneurs who are transforming how we feed cities. Put yourself in the running for $50,000 in prizes, and kickstart your business with expert mentorship. Enter today!