Thinly sliced: Emails reveal cozy relationship between Trump’s USDA and grocery lobby
This is the web version of a list we publish twice-weekly in our newsletter. It comprises the most noteworthy food stories of the moment, selected by our editors. Get it first here.
Anything you want. Sludge reports that, after being appointed by President Trump to high-ranking positions in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), former lobbyists for the National Grocers Association remained in close touch with former colleagues as the agency decided whether or not to grant Maine a soda ban for SNAP recipients. You know what happened next: the agency turned down the request. Email obtained by Sludge show a suspiciously cozy relationship between lobbyists and the government on issues that could affect grocers’ and soft drink manufacturers’ bottom lines. (Remember the “harvest box”?) If that sounds like breaking the law, it normally would be. But White House counsel wrote ethics waivers to allow the officials to “work with their former employers in the food industry on the very issues they previously pushed in Washington when working for those employers.”
“Customer obsession.” Gizmodo got its hands on a 45-minute training video sent by Amazon to managers at Whole Foods stores. The video, which appears to have been developed initially for use in Amazon’s warehouses, instructs managers to be on the lookout for the use of words like “living wage,” or workers “who normally aren’t connected to each other suddenly hanging out together,” as warning signs of potential organizing activity. We can’t say for sure that the crudely animated video was sent in response to a new effort by Whole Foods workers to unionize stores chain-wide, as we reported earlier this month. But some of the language, while not actually illegal, raises eyebrows. For instance: Unions aren’t welcome at Amazon, the video explains, because “having a union could hurt innovation which could hurt customer obsession which could ultimately threaten the building’s continued existence.” Union busting? You decide.
They don’t already do that? When there’s a food recall, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the federal agency responsible for the safety of the majority of the items stocked in grocery store shelves—will spread the word to consumers by putting out label information, product descriptions, and some photos or regional location information,. But they don’t do what would probably be most useful: actually name specific stores or store locations where affected products are being sold. That’s not because of some kind of technical limitation; instead, that information isn’t revealed because it’s a trade secret, “confidential between the supplier and retailer.” Now, that could change. According to a new rule proposed by FDA, the agency would be able to publish where contaminated food is being sold during “serious” recalls. “Knowing where a recalled product was sold during the most dangerous food recalls can be the difference between a consumer going to the hospital or not,” Commissioner Scott Gottlieb writes. To which we say: Duh.
Hurricane help. POLITICO reports that Hurricane Florence has inflicted $1.1 billion in damage on North Carolina farms, according to the state agriculture department, mostly in the form of row crop losses. Some help for those farmers may be on the way, however: The House of Representatives has passed a bill that includes $1.7 billion in relief for residents of the Carolinas. At Food and Power, Claire Kelloway notes that typical, non-emergency measures for farm relief, such as crop insurance and livestock indemnity programs, skew benefits towards the very largest producers—unlikely to help many North Carolina farmers who suffered damage to their organic produce and specialty crops.
McNatural. McDonald’s has vowed to remove artificial ingredients, like colors, flavors, and preservatives, from some of its most popular burgers, The Chicago Tribune reports. (McDonald’s pickles, however, will still contain preservatives.) This decision reflects a larger “clean label” trend that is sweeping the industry, as Americans demand more “clean” and “natural” foods. Maybe McDonald’s will listen to its workers next.
Retail therapy. Careful how you grab that shopping cart, friends. Walmart’s latest patent plans to collect biometric data, including heart rate, temperatures and stress levels to assess each customer’s “condition,” CB Insights reports. We’ve known for a while that Walmart was taking its in-store data collecting very seriously: New Food Economy’s H. Claire Brown reported earlier this summer on the company’s patent to track shopper movement by monitoring shopping cart wheels. This latest smart-cart patent, however, is being pitched as something more altruistic—a way to help flustered customers receive prompt medical attention. Because who wouldn’t get a little light-headed over those everyday low prices?