On March 28 and 29th, professionals, students, dietitians, and experts from around the country attended the 41st Annual National Food Policy Conference hosted by Consumer Federation of America. The speakers ranged from Washington Post Reporter Caitlin Dewey, to Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Dariush Mozaffarian, and even FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. Throughout the two-day conference, it became apparent why this event has been championed for so long; the discussions represented a broad range of opinions, the breakout session topics were stimulating, and the keynote speakers and panel conversations addressed some of the biggest issues facing agriculture and food policy wonks today. Here are some key takeaways:
Transparency is king.
I’ve never heard a single word talked about over the span of two days than “transparency”. It’s no secret that consumers are demanding more transparency at the grocery store. In an age where everything can be searched in a matter of minutes, people want to know what is happening to their food at the farm, manufacturing, and policy level. A study published in 2017 reported that 70% of consumers said their purchases are always or often influenced by transparency content, and most are now viewing transparent business and sourcing practices as a requirement rather than an add-on to their product. This drive for more information changes the way products are marketed, ingredients are advertised, regulations are designed, and nutrition science is reported. Most agree that consumers have the right to more information about where their food is coming from. However, many still debate the added benefit of some of this information, especially if it only leaves consumers more confused about which product is healthier for their family or most aligned with their personal values.
Nutrition science is difficult to communicate in today’s social media-heavy world.
As is with the case of more transparent products, more information is available to the average shopper than ever before. Three panel discussions were devoted to talking through what it’s like to analyze so many different sources of evidence in today’s food world; the discussions looked through the lens of journalists, policy-makers, and consumers. Though more credible research is being conducted to get to the bottom of health claims, the explosion of food bloggers praising the benefits of ingredients and products that were once confined to health food stores makes sifting through evidence-based and anecdotal science challenging, especially for consumers with limited time on their hands. This issue also puts food journalists in a unique position; NPR’s Dan Charles talked about his reporting on controversial topics such as genetically modified organisms or pesticides and the response that he’s gotten from his readers. Sometimes, if science goes against readers’ preconceived ideas or what they know to be anecdotally true, they can become dismissive of sources they previously believed. For instance, you could give someone all the evidence in the world that a fad diet isn’t scientifically healthy for them, but if they lose weight and feel good there will be a low chance they’ll make the suggested dietary changes. A Center for Food Integrity survey of 6,000 consumers showed that common values were about three to five times more important than demonstrating technical competency when gaining consumers’ trust. When it comes to communicating science-based nutrition messaging, knowing your audience is extremely important.
“Clean” labeling could be the next “healthy”.
Today, consumers want to look at a label and not only know where the ingredients are coming from but also be able to pronounce and identify the ingredients that make up their packaged good. A breakout session discussed the implications for bringing “clean” labeling to restaurants and packaged food, citing concerns of food additives and substances outlined in a Center for Science in the Public Interest report on the topic. As consumers demand transparency from our food system, they also consider healthiness, taste, and price when they are making decisions at the supermarket. It makes sense that to make an easier informed choice, a shorter ingredient list would be more preferable. However, much like the terms “natural” or “healthy”, “clean ingredients” is not regulated by the FDA. To every food manufacturer, grocer, and consumer, “clean” means something different. Despite this, a 2017 study by the Food Marketing Institute shows there is a general consensus among shoppers, with 65% avoiding ingredients like salt, sugar, and antibiotics, and 59% looking for minimally processed claims, like “no artificial preservatives” and “non-GMO”. Transparency and clean labeling have been a trend with consumers for the past few years, yet we still aren’t any closer to defining what it means or its limitations. For example, what are the public health and food safety implications of a shortened ingredient list? Although for the most part fewer ingredients translates to a healthier product, this mentality could be giving “clean” products a false sense of security, especially as we transition from labeling products with their technical names to familiar names, like sodium chloride to salt. It’s important to communicate with consumers that “clean” does not necessarily translate to healthy or less processed. A representative on the panel from Panera Bread, who recently finished transitioning their menu to “100% clean food” stated that the first goal of their program was to remove unwanted ingredients and now they are looking to reformulate products to make them healthier, like reducing sodium, sugar, or fat levels. This topic has become complex for those in the food industry; with limited resources, should we focus on reducing safe and artificial or unhealthy and natural ingredients?
The future of food assistance is uncertain.
Now that the news cycle has died down from the Trump Administration’s proposed “Harvest Box”, genuine concerns remain about the fate of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Dariush Mozaffarian, discussed the importance of using food as a means of improving health and why we see a disconnect in the U.S. healthcare system. This idea plays well into current discussions of whether or not to expand national food safety net programs in the upcoming Farm Bill. There are economic incentives to using SNAP to improve health outcomes, which everyone can agree is needed in the U.S. However, it’s SNAP requirements that members of Congress are most divided on and which are acting as barriers to getting the Farm Bill passed. While some policymakers suggest stricter work requirements and others propose increasing healthy food incentives, it is evident that there is no one right answer to effectively increasing food access in a way that satisfies both political parties.
Now, more than ever, it’s critical we talk to the people who grow our food.
I have been to many panels detailing the hardships that plague today’s young farmers, ranging from land access, student loan debt, and ineffective government programs. This panel, including four young farmers, was extremely candid in what they’ve experienced in their time farming and what keeps them motivated. Although the panelists said they would love to be farming full time, they all had to have a job off the farm to make ends meet. Whether you’re growing food for a CSA or raising dairy cows for yogurt, farming is extremely demanding, both physically and emotionally. Though there are USDA programs that are available to encourage beginning farmers, and the speakers were grateful for their existence, sometimes the barriers they had to jump through to apply to programs were not worth the paperwork. A recurring theme was that farming is difficult enough already in today’s society and they felt that the next Farm Bill should do more to support the people that grow our food. The biggest piece of information they wish urbanists in D.C. knew of their lives in the midwest? They farm because they love growing food and taking care of people; getting to know your farmer is so important not only to increase food literacy but also to help understand what a key demographic in the U.S. needs as support from their policymakers and communities.