The real risk to consumers when we go without most FDA food inspections

After a tumultuous year with multiple recalls, consumers are wary. Add in the government shutdown complete with plenty of press coverage, and we see the confidence in our food supply system tank. Although the full impact of the government shutdown on food inspections is unknown, instability is at the root of real consumer risk.

Shaken consumer confidence during the shutdown

The initial storm broke in a January 9 tweet by Scott Gottlieb, M.D., commissioner of the FDA, where he said his agency wasn’t completing domestic food inspections due to the shutdown. He tweeted that “we’d typically do about 160 domestic food inspections each week, and about 1/3 of those would be considered high risk.”

Dr. Gottlieb listed high-risk products, like baby formulas, seafood and soft cheeses, as missing inspections. For the average consumer, this lengthy list added to their concern, and some took to Twitter to ask if any food was safe. Within minutes, an NBC news interview with Gottlieb surfaced with talks of recalling workers.

While some experts praised this decision, NBC quoted others like Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), saying, “We don’t want the person inspecting our meat… to be distracted by not being able to pay their bills.”

This argument sheds light on the genuine threat to consumers: a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of an already strained system.

Concern over issues with food recalls

On a good business day, the FDA faces ongoing staffing shortages and worry over budget cuts. Sarah Taber, a consultant whose company, Boto Waterworks, monitors fruit and vegetable facilities told Bloomberg  the FDA  hasn’t been doing “enough for decades.” With the average food inspector earning less than $40,000 per year, attracting quality applicants isn’t easy. Rising concerns over transparency in the food supply system add to the increasing uneasiness over the credibility of the inspections.

Consumers rely on regular reviews of at-risk facilities to prevent a problem before it reaches a critical level. In the most recent data from the FDA, hundreds of facilities were cited for pest contamination. Others were found with objectionable water and sanitation conditions. Dozens more were written up after inspectors visually observed employees eating food, chewing gum, drinking beverages or using tobacco in areas with exposed food, equipment or utensils. With the majority of inspections halted, this increases the likelihood of problems.

Thorough investigations help deliver the evidence for food recalls

The Center for Disease Control lists 24 foodborne disease outbreaks in 2018, the highest in more than a decade. Dr. Gottlieb credits this to “better technology than ever before to link outbreaks of human illness to a common pathogen.” However, without proper regulatory protections during a government shutdown, unknown threats abound.

If total food inspections drop in 2019, then we face shortfalls in consumer trust that will impact sales in several industries. For those in the foodservice industry, it makes transparency difficult yet vital. Add in a lapse in service, a backlog of high-risk inspections, and you have the perfect storm for a health outbreak.


Food Waste Solutions Present Opportunities for Brands

According to estimates from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the United States accounts for approximately 133 billion pounds of food loss annually. That translates to one-third of the national food supply, worth $161 billion each year. As awareness of this crisis grows, a number of cities have passed ordinances requiring restaurants, grocery stores, bars and farmers markets to donate or compost all organic material waste, which could begin having significant effects on the food and restaurant industry.

Austin is the most recent community to join a growing list of environmentally conscious cities by instituting the Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO). The URO decrees that everything “that grows or once grew” -- items ranging from dirty pizza boxes to leftover veggie scraps -- be properly contributed or converted into usable material. San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island have all passed some sort of ordinance or law regarding food waste.

For impacted restaurants and retailers, the process of attaining compliance may seem daunting. Austin’s Office of Sustainability’s website outlines a number of country-wide best practices, beginning with organic diversion, where excess perishables are donated to food banks or soup kitchens.

For restaurants and retailers concerned about the potential repercussions of donating easily spoiled foodstuffs, it's important to note that the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act -- signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton -- protects businesses donating perishables to nonprofits from criminal and civil liability. Similarly, many areas have moved to composting initiatives, with both Seattle and San Francisco providing special trash receptacles for eligible waste.

In January 2018, ReFED, a nonprofit committed to reducing food waste, and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a collaboration of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association, released the first-ever Retail Food Waste Action Guide. According to the guide, food waste represents an $18.2 billion opportunity for grocery retailers, equal to roughly double the profits from food sales. Similarly, the savings could total $16 billion for full-service restaurants and $9.1 billion for limited-service restaurants. The guide also includes an overview of the challenges facing retailers and restaurateurs, while providing ideas on advanced initiatives for prevention, recovery and recycling.

Notably, the guide stresses the value of prevention-focused solutions, such as dynamic pricing and markdowns, as they are expected to create three times the net economic value of recovery and recycling solutions combined. To that end, it also highlights best practices, such as measuring and identifying root causes of waste, and engaging in industry collaborations such as consumer education campaigns and standardized date labeling.

The reasons to minimize food waste are many, whether through government mandates or other motivators. Restaurants, retailers and food suppliers adopting these initiatives could also help bolster their profit margins, with the added benefit of creating a greener, less wasteful world.

Why Restaurants Should Respond To Changes In Consumer Eating Behavior

Restaurant industry analysts monitor economic data to measure the overall strength of the industry so companies can alter their strategy if needed. The 2018 reviews are mixed, as consumer confidence was determined to be shaky due to United States retail missing its mark in September. Most consumers tightened purse strings, causing a decline in restaurant guest counts and traffic. Conversely, overall same store sales increased, resulting in higher average checks. Some analysts are concerned the positive sales data is short-term and reflects two additional factors: a.) Major restaurant companies have raised their prices to offset increases in minimum wages and rent costs; and b.) Americans were spending the extra money they received from Trump tax cuts. Future short-term reviews will continue to be mixed, but long-term, what transformations will the restaurant industry implement to offset the shifts in consumer eating behavior?

Below are four macro trends affecting the overall performance of the restaurant industry.

New Food Venues – Internal competition between restaurant industry segments has always been intense as consumers swap out one dining experience for another. This can often result in low monthly repeat visits. Over the years external competition has adversely impacted restaurant guest counts as more consumers use retail supermarkets, C-stores and mass merchandisers for prepared, restaurant-quality meals. Additionally, a new wave of nontraditional food venues is surfacing. Examples include movie theaters now serving complete meals and hand-crafted cocktails; food halls offering a variety of artisanal food experiences; and brick and mortar retailers creating an over-the-top shopping experience (e.g., AT&T Lounge, Crate & Barrel) where food is also being offered onsite. Long-term, the new innovative food venues could become a competitive force adding to consumer food choices.

Food Delivery – Why leave home for dinner? Last year over 80% of meals were prepared and eaten at home. NPD Group’s “Future of Dinner” study revealed this trend will continue to grow over the next five years. Technology is one of the leading factors driving the change. Examples include online ordering and delivery, grocery delivery, and meal kits. Additionally, the popularity of video games and streaming among the younger generations (e.g. Netflix and takeout – Gen Z) is also having an effect on eating habits. Restaurants are already adapting to the trend of in-home dining by jumping on the delivery bandwagon (this accounts for 3% of restaurant traffic according to the National Restaurant Association). In addition, some restaurant chains are implementing innovative solutions, such as Chick-fil-A’s “Mealtime Kits” (a line of chicken entrees), or Newk’s Eatery’s Express Market that offers take-home meal options.

Social Media Use – Millennials and Gen Z rely heavily on using technology driven social media platforms to engage with restaurant brands. “Instagrammable” food is their mantra. Consequently, to help drive sales, food marketers are crafting influence marketing movements targeting teenagers. In the future, given the amount of time consumers spend in their cars (101 minutes per day according to the Harvard Health Watch), dashboard voice-enabled technology will have a major impact on the food-away-from-home consumer decision making process.

Psychographic Profiling – At the moment, demographic categorization by population group is the primary targeting process in the restaurant industry. Because of the growth of data gathered via technology touch points (e.g., transactional purchasing behavior, apps, geo-location, etc.), psychographic profiling will become the norm when targeting future consumers. Potential psychographic buckets include lifestyles (e.g., “on-the-go”); situational behavioral patterns (location and time of day an individual purchases food); health perceptions; and social values (is the restaurant making the world a better place through sustainability, responsible sourcing, etc.).

Due to the changes detailed above, foodservice operators must better understand their guests’ behavior and implement innovative solutions in order to improve financial performance.


Top 10 Brands Getting Recognition for Sustainability

In a recent study, 81% of consumers reported a willingness to make personal sacrifices to address social and environmental issues. Furthermore, these socially and environmentally conscious consumers seek out responsible brands and products whenever possible, giving those items priority in purchasing decisions. As a result, a number of major food brands have started to promote their sustainability practices in an effort to elevate their perceived level of responsibility, sway consumer purchasing decisions and gain an edge over the competition.

We looked at 10 brands who are making strides toward sustainability and getting recognized for it. They – and through them, their loyal customers – are cutting down on waste, chemicals and their carbon footprint.

1. Ben & Jerry’s

In 2001, the Vermont-based ice cream manufacturer was purchased by British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever. While environmentally conscious since their inception in 1978, Unilever bolstered existing efforts by offsetting the carbon footprint from their manufacturing facilities by partnering with NativeEnergy, a Vermont sustainability consultancy, as well as investing “early and often” in efficiencies in their supply chain, retail scoop shops and manufacturing plants.

2. Carlsberg Beer

In 2017, Carlsberg announced an ambitious new sustainability program they call Together Towards ZERO. The four-part endeavor is aimed at climate change, water scarcity and public health concerns, and focuses on the key goals of zero carbon footprint, water waste and irresponsible drinking, as well as an accident-free culture. The plan includes a number of milestone goals, such as a 50% reduction in carbon emissions and 15% reduction in beer-in-hand carbon footprint at their breweries by 2022, with a target of zero carbon footprint by 2030.

3. Celestial Seasonings

The well-known herbal tea company has taken a number of measures to increase sustainability, including buying directly from farmers and supporting rain forest protections. They also place a particular focus on their packaging, including using pillow-style tea bags that don’t require a string, tag, staple or individual wrapper, and manufacturing their recyclable art-covered boxes from 100% recycled paperboard, including 35% post-consumer waste.

4. Clif Bar

First sold in 1992, Clif Bar hired a full-time ecologist to develop an in-house sustainability program in 2001. Since that time, the energy bar manufacturer has won numerous awards for its sustainable manufacturing processes, while switching to 100% sustainably sourced, organic ingredients; providing a stipend to employees who commute to work by bicycle; and investing $10M in organic farming research.

5. General Mills

As part of their sustainability mission, General Mills has committed to focus on climate change, water stewardship and preserving ecosystems, as well as sustainable sourcing, and human rights and animal welfare goals. In 2016, they were able to sustainably source 100% of their palm oil, and their stated goal is to do the same with their remaining top nine priority ingredients by 2020.

6. Lipton

Along with working to make all of its tea Rainforest Alliance Certified - a project which helps protect the land, water and people in tea-growing areas - Lipton is committed to finding 100% sustainable origins for its tea leaves by 2020. In addition, the company works to reduce, and when possible, eliminate, the use of pesticides in their farming.

7. Mars, Incorporated

With businesses spanning from Wrigley’s Chewing Gum to Uncle Ben’s Rice, Mars is embracing opportunities to lower their impact by delivering on the Paris Accord and the UN Sustainable Development Goals within a generation. Mars, Inc. has earmarked $1B to achieve these goals with plans to streamline their use of energy and water, simplify supply chains by buying directly from farmers and recreate their recipes without artificial ingredients.

8. PepsiCo

PepsiCo’s efforts focus on creating a healthier relationship between people and food, with specific 2025 goals aimed at transforming the company’s food and beverage product portfolio, contributing to a more sustainable global food system and helping to make local communities more prosperous by promoting environmentally responsible agricultural practices and increasing crop yields, thereby improving growers' livelihoods.

9. Starbucks

Already one of the largest retail builders of LEED-certified stores, Starbucks has announced plans to design, build and operate 10,000 “greener stores” by 2025. These coffee shops will focus on efficiency and water stewardship, while being 100% powered by renewable energy from solar and wind projects.

10. Whole Foods

Purchased by Amazon in August 2017, Whole Foods is continuing their environmental stewardship initiatives by sourcing only sustainably caught wild or responsibly farmed fish and seafood, supporting organic and bio-dynamic agriculture, and reducing their waste and consumption of non-renewable resources.


Food and Beverage Social Media Leaders

The Apron team reviews several published social media rankings on a regular basis, and below is a list of six food and beverage social media leaders to benchmark:

Taco Bell – Taco Bell holds the spot as the Facebook champion among the leading QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants). One index, ShareIQ, indicated (in the first four months of this year) 500,000 engagements of the 1.1 million notched by the top seven brands on this platform. They use Facebook to communicate their positioning as a lifestyle brand targeting millennials. Taco Bell won the 2017 “Mobile Marketer of the Year” award and an example post highlighted National Taco Day (Oct. 4) using an animated video.

food social media taco bell

McDonald’s – Based on Instagram and Twitter photos, McDonald’s ranked number one (source: Statista) as the most visible brand (a monthly average of 890,000 photos) outpacing the second and third non-food brands Nike and Adidas, each by nearly 100,000. McDonald’s also uses YouTube to communicate promotions, as well as corporate policy (e.g., sustainable packaging by 2025) delivered by their CEO Steven Easterbrook.

food social media mcdonalds

Wendy’s – Social media metrics and receiving top rankings are significant, but nothing is more important than improved profitability performance, which Wendy’s exhibited in 2017. The fast food chain attributes a large part of their increased sales and corresponding profits to stepping up their social media movement via Twitter exchanging witty banter with their followers (2.81M). An example engagement that went viral was follower Carter Wilkerson asking how many retweets would he need for a year of free chicken nuggets to which Wendy’s responded: 18 million. Note: #NuggsForCarter became the most retweeted Tweet of all time, but Carter fell short. Financials by the numbers: Wendy’s saw a 49.7% growth in profit from $129.6 million in 2016 to $194 million in 2017.

food social media wendys

Starbucks – The Seattle chain consistently trends high on most social media platforms. One key metric published by Sprinklr projects their potential reach is approximately 74 million impressions, nearly 50% higher than their major competitor, Dunkin’ Donuts. Twitter has been their leading platform and the brand has 11.5 million followers. They use Twitter to promote their popular seasonal specialty drink Pumpkin Spice Latte (#PSL). They also use it as a recruiting tool for a Starbucks careers.

Whataburger – Social media is also as great way for smaller chains to garner a loyal following. For instance, regional powerhouse Whataburger (820+ units) frequently outperforms larger competitors in terms of engagement. The company has seen success using contests/sweepstakes as marketing tools and makes great use of real-time marketing to join popular conversations when it’s relevant to the brand. User-generated content is also huge, as some of its most recent popular posts have included Whataburger fashion such as Whataburger pants from an Instagram influencer or Whataburger eyeshadow. In addition, L2 Digital IQ Index ranked Whataburger at 97 on its Restaurants US 2017 report benchmarking the digital performance of 126 restaurants.

food social media whataburger

Chobani – The popular Greek yogurt company stands out when it comes to sustaining a fun, authentic social media presence. Their food visuals are an important feature on both their Pinterest and Instagram movements and include healthy recipes using yogurt as a sour cream substitute and containers professionally photographed with fruit. They use YouTube and Facebook to give their fans a look behind the scenes of the company (e.g., manufacturing process, charitable events, etc.) to create an air of transparency. Chobani also uses these platforms as customer service tools to engage with consumers.

food social media chobani

Food and beverage companies are continually accelerating their game as it relates to implementing social movements to further connect with their communities. As you can see from this list of benchmarks, leading brands who do it well manage to stay creative while  also being transparent and authentic.


Our Work: Introducing BBQuest

In recent years, brands have been told to become their own journalists – tell their own stories, on their terms, directly to their target audiences. Our client, Beef Loving Texans, already had a years-long track record of doing just that when we began working with them. Through their series of “Texas Stories,” they highlighted the special role beef plays in the lives of Texans.

In 2018, Beef Loving Texans wanted to do something different. Instead of isolated, two- to five-minute videos with accompanying written blogs, we recommended an episodic content series, tied with content designed to drive sales of beef – namely, recipes. Capitalizing on the trend of food-and-travel shows and today’s golden age of barbecue, the team decided on BBQuest: a tasting tour of Texas’ largest metro areas. To give audiences an additional reason to tune in, we shared some insider information: off-menu items at each restaurant we featured.

Each episode highlights three restaurants and two activities in a major metro area: Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth. Our series host, actor Kelsey Pribilski, is joined by a different guide to each city. Barbecue blogger and Hardcore Carnivore cookbook author Jess Pryles led Kelsey around Austin, James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd showed off Houston’s flavors, restauranteur and godfather of San Antonio’s culinary scene Johnny Hernandez gave us a taste of his city, and Top Chef ® contestant and restauranteur John Tesar guided Kelsey through Dallas-Fort Worth. Along the way, audiences got to see the natural beauty, art and historic sites which, along with food, shape the personality of each city.

For Beef Loving Texans, beautiful food photos and videos are important, but they’re not enough on their own. Beef Loving Texans represents the 140,000 beef ranchers and farmers in Texas, helping make beef the protein of choice for Texans through promotion, education and research. And while barbecue is an accessible food for many Texans, our research showed that most Texans only eat out one or fewer times per week. Additionally, given the size of the state, Texans may not be able to easily travel to another city in pursuit of one dish.

We needed to give BBQuest audiences eating at home a reason to eat beef that night. In addition to beautiful video and engaging conversations with top pitmasters and chefs, we offered BBQuest viewers a chance to recreate the secret menu items themselves, with Beef Loving Texans recipes inspired by the show. From a Korean beef ssam to brisket chocolate chip cookies, audiences will have twelve delicious reasons to prepare beef at home.

Apron created the BBQuest show idea and developed a script for a pilot episode, located in Austin. We put out an RFP to seven production companies in the Austin area, and selected a Matchstick Media as our production partner. With Matchstick and Beef Loving Texans, we casted our host and put plans in place for producing our pilot. We also developed a logo for the series.

We kicked off BBQuest production with a concert and party at downtown Austin’s best barbecue joint, Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-Be-Cue, coinciding with the first night of the SXSW Interactive festival. Through the spring and summer, we overcame storms and heat and aligned busy schedules to produce the remaining three episodes in two days each. Through late summer, we worked with Matchstick and Beef Loving Texans to edit the episodes to about twenty minutes each, develop and photograph recipes inspired by the secret menu items, and prepare to launch the series.

We promoted the series with earned, social and paid media, driving all traffic back to BBQuest season one is now completed and you can watch all four epsiodes here. Results are still coming, but the launch day for the BBQuest trailer now represents the largest spike in traffic for in more than a year.


How to be a Honey Connoisseur

It’s often said bees are responsible for 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat. Apron is proud to support Epic Honey Co. who relocates bees that were up for extermination to a safe haven.

Just like wine cultivated from grapes grown in different regions, honey connoisseurs know there are a wide range of wild honey flavors – and they don’t taste anything like the little plastic bear from the grocery store. There are three things any honey connoisseur should consider: flavor, color, and region.


The flavor actually comes from what the bees forage within a three-mile radius of the hive. Like a fine wine, your first taste should direct you to what the bees foraged on, and then, in the back of your throat, detect the sweetness. Imagine an unmistakable avocado or mango first impression taste with just an undertone or afterthought of sweet. 

At Epic Honey, we deal in “limited honey reserves” which are never cooked, blended, or adulterated. Our honey is “bee-approved” in that we let our bees forage naturally and are never pumping their hives full of sugar or dumping fructose into hive toppers to increase honey production. The reason a truly wild honey has such a fantastic impact on your taste buds has to do with the fact that when a honey is kept raw—meaning it’s never cooked over 110 degrees—the flavor profile takes on notes of the region and the medicinal value remains intact.


Taste isn’t the only indicator that sets apart a truly wild honey, however. Color varies just as widely and has a vast spectrum depending on the forage density of a hive. We’ve come to expect honey to be gold in color, but this is just one aspect of a food love story that is more multidimensional in nature.


Where your honey comes from is also very important as it can affect the flavor. If you’ve never had honey straight from the hive, you owe it to yourself to taste the difference that comes with a limited reserve honey. Limited reserve honey comes in small runs. A single hive can only produce a maximum of 100 pounds of honey a year. Each hive will have a unique flavor profile. To start tasting honey like a fine wine, you might consider ordering the five-jar sample pack on the Epic Honey website, or find a local beekeeper in your area.

Plenty of other “bee-approved” honey sources exist as well. At Epic Honey, we’ve partnered with the American Honey Bee Protection Agency, and profits from our honey go to support their bee rescue, relocation and rehabilitation of wild honey bees. All of our honey comes from cooperative relationships with beekeepers and bee wranglers who treat their bees with respect, allow them to forage naturally and make sure there are not nearby farms spraying pesticides which could hurt bee colonies.

Bees truly are a natural resource. It's said that if the bees die, we die, as the crops bees pollinate and the animals which eat those crops would slowly thin out within four years of their disappearance. Organizations like the American Honey Bee Protection Agency are making great strides in educating the public about these issues, growing bee rescue operations all over the country and pointing to “bee-approved” honey suppliers. Consumers can do their part by learning how to be a discerning honey connoisseur and getting their honey the old fashioned way—straight from the hive.

How Blockchain Technology Can Transform Food Supply Chain Transparency

Trust is at an all-time low in many industries. Many consumers, having seen brands fail to live up to their promises, are highly skeptical, especially of big businesses. At the same time, these consumers are more informed than ever before. Some companies have utilized digital platforms like websites, apps or QR codes to aid and guide customers in their research. Perhaps even more promising, Blockchain offers food producers and the food supply chain a way to demonstrate transparency and win back trust.

Food Transparency

It’s no secret consumer trust in large food brands and food producers is dwindling. For starters, consumers have become skeptical of food science and technology because they are uncertain of the long-term effect on personal health. Take GMOs (genetically modified organisms) for example: GMO crops have the potential to help reduce food waste, use water and land more efficiently and improve food safety. However, gene editing sounds scary, and some consumers are wary of both big agriculture and big food. They believe participants in the food supply chain are more concerned about their bottom line than the public’s health and well-being.

Additionally, numerous food recalls have eroded consumer trust. Following Chipotle’s E. coli breakout in 2015, the chain’s reputation was seriously tarnished; their quarterly bottom line profitability declined 44% for the same period one year later. Despite all the food safety protocols Chipotle put into place, in July 2018, they experienced another foodborne illness breakout in Ohio (this time contained to one store). McDonald’s also experienced food safety issues recently when they had to recall salads at approximately 3,000 restaurants due to lettuce tainted by Cyclospora parasites.

Today’s consumers want to learn more about what they eat so they can feel safer. Transparency is the currency of trust.

Blockchain – Supply Chain Solutions

Blockchain technology, originally developed for virtual currencies, is a public electronic digital ledger, which is open to all participants. It traces transactions and assets using a massive amount of computational power. Because every participant’s computer has a copy of the ledger, it is incredibly difficult and labor-intensive to change or falsify a blockchain transaction once it is recorded. In a sense, blockchain crowdsources to create trust.

In the world of food and beverage, supply chains are complex, and foods pass through multiple stages to get from farm to fork. Each handoff can be recorded in the blockchain ledger, which is virtually unchangeable. This will help track foods through their entire journey, making the supply chain transparent to consumers and also speeding and better-targeting recalls.

In the past, isolating food contamination issues has been a tedious, time consuming process that would take days, sometimes weeks. Blockchain tracking takes seconds, enabling food industry leaders to locate the issue quickly to remove contaminated products from supply chain, shelves, even menus.

Early Adopters

In China, multinational retail leader Walmart formed a blockchain food safety alliance with IBM and Tsinghua University as early as 2016. Historically, Chinese agriculture had been notorious for alarming poor food safety mandates. The goal of the blockchain Hyperledger Project was to ensure the provenance and quality of Walmart’s Chinese pork supply.  Their database lists the transactions of how the protein flowed through the commercial network – farm origins, factory data, expirations dates, storage temperatures and distribution.  Another early adopter is French multinational retailer Carrefour. Currently, Carrefour uses blockchain technology for their product line of free-range chicken and plans to extend their capabilities to other protein (including seafood) and vegetable product lines later this year.

Numerous major food companies, including Nestle and Unilever, have begun working with IBM to form a blockchain consortium along with supermarket chains and global financial service companies. But blockchain can also benefit smaller niche players, like Block Bird chicken. Sourced from several small, Midwestern farms and verified by blockchain technology, the entire journey of their chickens to the grocery store is documented and visible on the front label of their packages. Block Bird’s label includes hatchery information, starting weight, ending weight, the type of feeds consumed, as well as the health and handling of each bird.

The Future Challenge

Adoption of blockchain technology in the food and beverage industry is in its infancy. As with any new technology, there will be numerous challenges – flawed data and cybersecurity threats come to mind. However, these challenges are common to any new technology. The opportunity to build trust with consumers, as well as to manage food safety incidents with speed and accuracy, makes blockchain a promising investment for any stage of the food supply chain.

Road Map to Personalized Nutrition

“To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”  – Buddha

For decades, food and beverage companies used extensive consumer research to manufacture products to satisfy the varied appetites of their target market. With the advent of more consumers seeking healthier foods, manufacturers began tweaking the level of salt, sugar, fat, etc. to promote sales of their existing product offerings. Today, a growing subset of health and wellness consumers’ search for highly personalized nutrition information has opened up an entirely new market.

Personalized Nutrition

Personalized nutrition was first popularized by dietitians delivering tailored nutrition advice based on the physical, clinical and emotional needs of their patients/clients. In the past few years, personalized nutrition has slowly evolved into a complex, multifaceted approach. Thanks to technology (e.g., home testing kits, fitness trackers, etc.), numerous data points are analyzed to design an individual’s customized diet. Multiple areas of measurement include an individual’s physical activity, sleep behavior, dietary habits, genetics, blood sugar levels and the emerging science of microbiome (microorganisms in humans including bacteria, fungi and viruses). Despite the recent advancement of personalized nutrition, understanding all the intricate relationships between our eating patterns and our body’s ecosystem is in its infancy.

The Personalized Nutrition Market  

As personalized nutrition is gearing up for prime-time, numerous companies have already jumped into the arena. Detailed below are a few of the leading personalized nutrition solutions on the market:

  • Nutrigenomix – A University of Toronto biotechnology company launched in 2012. They provide genomic information to facilitate improved health via personalized nutrition to healthcare professionals and their clients around the globe (22 countries, 2,000-plus authorized providers). Their primary saliva collection test kit examines 45 genetic markers that are analyzed at their accredited laboratories to deliver customized nutrition and physical activity recommendations tailored to an individual’s DNA.
  • Habit – The company uses an at-home test kit to collect bio samples and analyze more than 60 different biomarkers at their lab. Once the data is evaluated, Habit develops a diet plan based on an individual’s biology, metabolism and personal goals. Habit also offers personalized recipes and one-on-one wellness and nutrition coaching for subscribers.  Of note, the San Francisco-based company received financial backing in 2017 from the Campbell Soup Company.
  • Orig3n – The privately held Boston-based company has raised more than $30 million since its 2014 launch, validating the continued interest and investment in the personalized nutrition market. Depending on the DNA kit one choses, with cheek-swab technology, consumers will be able to monitor their personalized health – fitness potential, skin care, nutritional needs, etc.
  • DayTwo – An Israeli company pioneering in the cutting-edge study of microbiome (the collection of microbes that exist in your gut). They are currently collaborating with Johnson & Johnson to better understand personalized clinical nutrition to combat diabetes. The company collects stool samples from consumers to predict blood sugar responses to different foods. DayTwo’s end result is a recommended personalized dietary plan needed to maintain normalized blood sugar levels 24/7.

Personalized Nutrition 3.0

We expect to see significant growth in the health and wellness food and beverage market, as more and more consumers continue to seek out the plethora of available nutritional information and solutions.  We also anticipate AI (artificial intelligence) to impact this market and continue the drive for innovation through new products (e.g., personalized supplements) and services (e.g., customized home delivery meal kits).


How Kids Affect Food and Beverage Buying Decisions

Parents are busier than ever these days. As many households shift to dual-income earners, parents are sharing household responsibilities more than ever. As a parent myself, I can say while convenience and nutrition are both really important, those go out the window if my child won’t eat it. In that sense, kids have a huge impact on purchase decisions.

Childhood Eating Challenges

Groceries are a major slice of the household budget. Parents are challenged to make food and beverage purchases that are healthy, which can mean costly (e.g., fresh fruits and vegetables), balanced with items that satisfy their children’s finicky palates. And with busy family lifestyles filled with children’s activities and full-time work schedules, convenience often drives the eating behavior of a household with kids, but many of those foods are higher in sugar, fat and calories. Data shows parents struggle daily to provide healthy food choices:

  • Kids’ taste preferences take precedence over healthy items when it comes to food and beverage purchases. According to a 2016 report from the FMI and Rodale, 95% of the purchases are influenced by taste, 91% by health.
  • A 2017 poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan revealed 1 in 5 parents don’t think it is important to limit junk food and fast food in their child’s diet. More importantly, only 1 in 6 parents believe their child’s diet is very healthy.
  • Package Facts reported that 26% of parents learn about a new product as a request from their child. However, 55% of parents surveyed indicated it is important for children to follow their example (values) when it comes to eating healthy; 46% of the respondents purchase products for their nutritional content.

An emerging mega trend impacting the food and beverage market is the generational influence of Millennials. Consumer research indicates 45% of Millennials with kids shop with a shopping list compared to Millennials without kids at 36%.  However, shopping with kids presents a challenge; 31% of the respondents regularly bring their kids along, but only 27% stick to their list compared to 40% who shop solo. The study by GenerationWhy further highlighted how some Millennials who utilize lists when grocery shopping, recognize the opportunity to engage their children about healthy eating/nutrition as an approach to instill their future food choices.

The K-12 Influence  

School also provides an important environment to develop eating habits. First Lady Michelle Obama made major strides to improve nutrition in schools, but the current administration rolled back some of the standards she championed.  Regardless, the school foodservice landscape has progressed in the past few years to offer more nutritional foods and education.  Some districts are providing farm-to-table items, plant-based foods, heathy all-day breakfast items and DIY salad bars.  As a result, children are being exposed to numerous food-away-from-home options to further broaden their food preferences and eating behavior.

Teenagers – Food on the Brain

A new study by Farm Rich of 2,000 families revealed teenagers spend 945 hours, or approximately 39 days, thinking about food from the age of 13 to 19.  The study (7 out of 10) indicates their parents are their biggest source of food knowledge, while 46 percent gain inspiration from watching food shows. Facebook and YouTube were the top two social media platforms for their online inspiration; 27% and 21% respectively.

The research indicated that while 90 percent of teens enjoy their mealtime, 52% indicated the food served doesn’t always suit their tastes or dietary lifestyles. More than a quarter of teens (28 percent) are experimenting with new diets including low carb, low-fat and vegetarian. The food-obsessed teens are also very vocal – 45 percent of the parents surveyed indicated their children weigh in often on what mealtime should look like. In fact, OnePoll research indicated 30 percent of the weekly grocery bill is driven by teens’ preferences and eating behaviors.

Clearly we live in a child-centric world where parents are highly influenced by their children when purchasing food and beverages. As marketers, we have to look beyond the primary shopper and target messages to the whole home.

AI: The New Look for the Supermarket Industry

The brick-and-mortar grocery retail market is at a tipping point. Amazon, the leader in online grocery shopping is further triggering market disruption with its acquisition of Whole Foods Market and the introduction of Amazon Go, a high-tech, convenient mini-market, the store of the future.

The popularity of meal kit subscriptions and online delivery services have eroded in-store foot traffic.  Consequently, grocers must begin to unlock their consumer data to get a better handle on how to create a more personalized customer shopping experience. AI (Artificial Intelligence) solutions will facilitate the transformation of the supermarket industry.

A recent study by Accenture showed 78 percent of consumer goods executives agree AI will be a game changer. Established AI solutions have already revolutionized the way many leading retailers have enhanced their engagement with customers to deliver superior service. One innovative solution has been LoweBot, introduced by home improvement retail leader Lowe’s in their San Francisco market.  The autonomous robots crunch real-time data (pricing and inventory) to directly or via store employees provide improved personalize service. However, the grocery retail channel is at the early stages of adapting to AI technologies.

Walmart has been a market leader, leveraging technology to create the “seamless customer experience.” They recently upgraded their mobile app to include a product search bar, barcode scanner, customer review and Walmart pay features.  Customers can make “smart” shopping lists that enable them to check price and item availability before they enter a store.  Store navigation maps also facilitate a more convenient shopping experience.  Another recent technology addition in some stores has been their Pick-up-Towers: self-service kiosks located at the store entrance where customers scan the barcodes from their online receipt and products will appear on a conveyor belt. They have also implemented in select sections a “Scan and Go” shopping experience so customers can bypass the regular queue.  With the advent of their investment in all these technology driven customer experience solutions, Walmart will be in position to analyze the data gathered to improve.

CPG companies are also jumping on the AI bandwagon to assist their grocery partners to better understand consumer buying behavior. Kraft Foods integrates AI algorithms with its “iPhone Assistant” app.  They can detect the size of a family based on the recipes downloaded and determine other consumer product preferences.  Consequently, they connect consumers with the recipe ingredients needed so they can create shopping lists at nearby stores and automatically download coupons upon arrival at the checkout line.

The utilization of AI and the deep learning of consumer purchasing algorithms will clearly deliver a personalized customer experience that could lead to increased loyalty for retail grocers in the future. Thanks to the wealth of consumer and product purchasing data available, grocers can also use AI to improve their overall operational efficiency.  In the future, they will be able to better manage their inventory, reduce costly waste associated with produce and perishable items , and as a result, allow supply chain management to reach new heights.

By connecting the dots across all systems and implementing creative strategies, the automated future could improve the consumer experience and boost profitability for the grocery industry.

Understanding the Romaine-Based E. Coli Outbreak of 2018

Beginning in April, 197 people across 35 states contracted E. coli believed to have originated in Yuma, Arizona. Most of the victims reported eating bagged, pre-cut romaine lettuce, although some were merely in close contact with those who became sick from consuming it. Of the 197 victims, 89 required hospitalization. To date, individuals in California, New York, Arkansas and Minnesota have passed away.

In a May 31 blog post by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), authors Scott Gottlieb, M.D., and Stephen Ostroff, M.D. noted, “This is a serious and tragic outbreak. And we’re devoting considerable effort to identifying the primary source. We’ve made progress in recent weeks toward this goal. This outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses is the largest in the United States in more than 10 years.”

That outbreak, which occurred during the summer of 2006, impacted 199 people across 26 states and Canada and included three fatalities. The 2006 incident was ultimately linked to a baby spinach field in California, which had been contaminated by a mix of river water and cattle and feral pig feces. At present, the exact source of the current contamination is still unknown.

In a statement released by the FDA on June 1, they noted, “The traceback investigation indicates that the illnesses associated with this outbreak cannot be explained by a single grower, harvester, processor, or distributor. While traceback continues, the FDA will focus on trying to identify factors that contributed to contamination of romaine across multiple supply chains.”

Across the country, retail food chains and grocery stores responded quickly to the threat. Costco, Walmart and Kroger grocery stores pulled existing lettuce products off their shelves in response to warnings from federal investigators. On April 21, the popular fast casual chain Just Salad took to Twitter to respond to concerns. With nearly 30 locations in the New York and New Jersey area, plus outposts in Philadelphia and Chicago, they reassured customers with the following: “Just Salad suppliers are NOT affected by the possible E.coli outbreak. Our Romaine in all markets is grown in CA, where there have not been any reports of contaminated lettuce. We will be adding Iceberg to the menu for those that would like another lettuce option.”

Selling contaminated food can have significant financial impacts for retailers and restaurants. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study published in April 2018 estimated the potential damages to a fast food restaurant due to an outbreak. According to the researchers, a single foodborne illness incident costs between $4,000 and $1.9 million for cases involving fines, lost revenue and legal fees.

In late May, the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is administered by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, confirmed romaine lettuce was no longer being produced nor distributed from the Yuma growing region. The last known harvest occurred on April 16, 2018, and – due to the product’s 21-day shelf life – it's presumed the infected romaine lettuce is no longer available in stores or restaurants.

While the contaminated product is likely out of supply, it remains to be seen whether or not consumer trust in romaine lettuce has been impacted. However, kudos go to the grocers and restaurants who reacted quickly, because it demonstrated effective food safety systems in practice and reinforced consumer trust in their brands.

Raw Water: Harmless Trend or Health Threat?

An unusual trend has been gaining steam since late 2017. It’s called raw water, and its fans say it’s healthier than tap water, more natural, even probiotic. Raw water has mostly taken off in California and in affluent areas of the East Coast, among the same demographics who might go in for raw food diets or juicing. And some customers are willing to pay a premium to call themselves raw-water drinkers.

Of course, “raw water” is not a new thing. People have collected water directly from roadside and trailside springs for centuries, and specific springs have long been reputed to offer health-promoting properties. Many bottled water brands tout their water’s origin at some of these same springs, though bottled water is required to be tested and treated, if necessary, to bring it within federal and state water quality standards.

So, is “raw water” just re-branded bottled water? Or is this trend actually unsafe?

To answer this, it’s important to distinguish between different types of untreated water. Water safety depends on both the source – surface water, groundwater, or rainwater – and on what the water has been in contact with on its way from the source to the consumer. For all sources, water testing is very important to ensure safety.

Surface water and groundwater

Collecting untreated surface water (like the water in streams, rivers and lakes) for drinking can certainly make you sick. E. coli, Cryptosporidium, Shigella and hepatitis A virus are just a few of the infectious agents frequently found in untreated water located near human residences. Industrial and pesticide contamination are also concerns. Runoff from farms, factories, roads and cities easily enters surface bodies of water.

Clearly, in today’s world, it’s extremely difficult to find a stream or lake that’s untouched by human activity. But when it comes to microbes, even that bubbling mountain stream is likely not as clean as it looks. The parasite Giardia lamblia is shed in wild animal droppings and can survive for several months in a wilderness stream. This parasite can make you miserable for six weeks or more.

In contrast with untreated surface water, groundwater – in its original state deep under the earth’s surface – is often safe without treatment. Groundwater supplies are built up over time as water seeps into the earth through layers of soil, sand, silt and clay. Microbes and many organic contaminants get caught in tiny pores and stick to particles as the water passes through. Thus, deep ground water is naturally filtered and is typically free of microbes or even viruses.

Deep wells and water collection at natural springs are both ways of accessing this potentially safer water resource. But there are some major caveats: groundwater quality ranges widely among regions. Contaminants in some groundwater supplies can include industrial chemicals, petroleum, natural chemical or mineral contaminants like arsenic, and bad-tasting components like sulfur. In some areas, very high natural levels of fluoride exist – much higher than the levels added to tap water that some raw water drinkers are intent on avoiding. And groundwater can be contaminated near the surface or on its way to the bottling spot.

All this means testing is necessary. Over 15 million Americans access groundwater through private wells, and the CDC recommends that these homeowners have their wells tested at least yearly for both pathogens and pollutants. Many municipal water supplies originate as groundwater, too, but only after in-depth testing and treatment.

What about probiotic claims?

One of the biggest selling points for some raw water aficionados is the idea that “raw water” is probiotic or “alive,” and that it’s healthier to consume products that contain microbes. But there’s a huge difference between the microbes in probiotic foods and the microbes in untreated water. In yogurt and properly fermented food, benign microbes outcompete and suppress harmful ones. In drinking water, on the other hand, the presence of bacteria and other life forms is not a positive as there’s no fermentation process to suppress dangerous organisms.

Looking beyond the hype, raw water appears to be just another incarnation of bottled water, something the environmentally-concerned public is turning away from. The environmental costs of its transport and bottling are likely similar to those of traditional bottled water. The cost to the planet might be even higher when you consider that some customers pay to have this "super-premium" water shipped across the country.

Raw water that is advertised as probiotic could be worse than a waste of money and resources, though. If it’s not properly tested, there’s no way to know what you’re getting.

Will GMO Labeling Change Consumer Purchase Decisions?

The passing of H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, mandates the labeling of any food containing genetically modified materials. As written, the legislation requires food packages to indicate the presence of GMOs through a QR code, symbol or plain text. Critics, including the Food and Drug Administration, believe the bill's limited definition of “bioengineering” is overly narrow, as it does include gene editing, the process by which a cell’s DNA is replaced, added to or deleted. Nonetheless, some form of labeling is imminent and inevitable. What isn't known is how these specifications, no matter their form, will impact consumer purchasing decisions.

Studies have shown purchase decisions are driven by a number of factors.
Along with the primary drivers of sensory characteristics and price, many buyers consider ingredient lists, allergen warnings and nutritional information. However, research indicates conventional shoppers are more likely to be attached to specific brands; whereas consumers with a preference for organic products are not brand-loyal so much as they seek organic products in general.  Similarly, the customers who regularly buy organic brands are less inclined to research whether they are considered sustainable or ethical, perhaps believing the designation implies as much.

While it’s not possible to foresee the exact outcomes of GMO labeling, a reasonable prediction can be made from the current labeling efforts of several major food brands. Beginning in 2016, General Mills, Campbells and Mars, Inc., as well as Kelloggs, Frito-Lay and ConAgra began identifying products containing genetically modified ingredients. This was done in accordance with the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 and involved labels with language such as “produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.”

In an interview with The Organic and Non-GMO Report, General Mills' media relations representative Bridget Christenson revealed zero impact to company sales, stating, “We haven’t noted any strong consumer response, and haven’t seen any impact on sales.” Similarly, Thomas Hushen, a media representative at Campbell’s, echoed similar reactions, disclosing, “Regarding sales, there are a variety of factors that impact sales and we can’t attribute changes to any one thing. It (labeling) was a popular decision in the eyes of consumers and customers.”

Although product appearance and price point are believed to be the most significant drivers of consumer purchase decisions by American shoppers, a 2011 study by Elise Golan and Kuchler, economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, looked into the habits of consumers in countries already requiring labels to identify genetically modified products. In their study, the economists noted little to no impact, stating “labels are generally a weak policy tool for changing consumer consumption behavior,” because they “generally fail to get consumers’ attention.” Moreover, their research indicated most individuals make impulse-driven food purchases and rarely consult labels at all.

In Brazil, where a 'transgenic' symbol has been required on all GMO-containing foods since 2001, Golan and Kuchler found many consumers were actually drawn to the products bearing the symbol, particularly if they claimed to possess a nutritional advantage.

While it’s fair to presume the current interest in organic and natural foods will be a strong, positive driver for non-GMO labeled products, current studies indicate the average consumer is unlikely to note or be particularly concerned whether a product has been produced with genetically enhanced ingredients, likely electing instead to maintain loyalty to brands they already know and trust.

What about the organic or health-conscious consumer?
The Organic Trade Administration reports that U.S. sales of organic products increased 11% in 2017, representing more than $39 billion in overall purchases. Currently, it's estimated that almost five percent of all U.S. food sales are comprised of organic products. On that note, it's safe to assume those already inclined to read labels and evaluate nutritional information are most likely to recognize and respond to a GMO designation. Nonetheless, although GMO labeling will likely increase the perceived value and justify higher costs for non-GMO goods among health-conscious consumers, it is still just a small fraction of the population.

That fact, coupled with the known impacts of widespread, self-initiated labeling at companies like Campbell's and General Mills, lead to the reasonable conclusion that GMO labeling won’t have a significant impact on the majority of consumer purchasing decisions. Likewise, the smaller segment of consumers concerned with nutritional data are likely to respond to the information based on their own pre-existing beliefs and values.

Much ado about ‘cue: Six things everyone should know about BBQ

Especially where our Texas roots are planted, there’s nothing more indicative of warmer temps than pulling out the barbecue pit or smoker so family and friends can gather to a great meal (and maybe a couple of cold brews).
Coincidentally, there’s no other cuisine in the US of A that inspires as much passion or devotion as barbecue. Still, with passion comes debate, so the Apron team is here to tell you what you need to know about BBQ.

When talking about barbecue (called BBQ by some) let’s get a couple of facts straight. We’re specifically referring to the process when meat is hot-smoked, low and slow, between 200 and 250 degrees. This is often done in a barbecue pit or a grill. However, grilling refers to high, direct heat and faster cooking. And the general barbecue process is even different than smoking; smoked meats are cooked low and slow, but with indirect heat at less than 200 degrees. With that out of the way, these are the top six things to know:
  1. HISTORY: Barbecue predates George Washington, who twice made mention in his diaries about attending a “barbicue” (he was a horrible speller). Recent presidents have also hosted barbecues - the late Lyndon B. Johnson threw the first White House barbecue, while Jimmy Carter opted for a “pig-pickin” for 500 people, and George H. W. Bush gave foreign guests at taste of Texas-style barbecue at his Kennebunkport getaway.
  2. METHOD: There’s much debate on whether to use wood (and what type), charcoal, or gas. It can also be cooked wet, using a sauce or marinade, or via dry rub. It takes trial, error and [lots of] time to find the perfect combination.
  3. MEAT: You can barbecue everything from sausage, brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, chicken and ham to turkey, pork shoulder (or the whole hog), turkey, goat and lamb – although we’re partial to beef here at Apron. There are even four different types of pork ribs - spare ribs come from the underbelly; St. Louis-style are spare ribs without the breastbone; country-style are made from the pork shoulder; and baby-back are from the top of the ribcage.
  4. REGIONS: You may know there are regional differences (think Kansas City, known for its meat variety, Memphis with its tomato-vinegar-based sauces, Chicago’s known-for of dry rubbed meats, and even the hotly-debated Brooklyn). Interestingly, the Carolinas have three regions of their own – Eastern North Carolina, Piedmont, and South Carolina – and Texas has two – Central and East Texas.
  5. SAUCES:With regions come sauces that have developed a cult-like following. To name a few, folks can choose from Alabama white sauce, Texas-style mop sauce, sweet and tangy Kansas City sauce, South Carolina mustard sauce, Eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce and Lexington dip.
  6. STATS: Oklahoma has the most BBQ restaurants per capita (one for every 5,000 residents), while Alabama has the highest percentage of BBQ restaurants (8% of all restaurants in Alabama are barbecue). On the other end of the scale, Connecticut has the least number of BBQ restaurants in the nation while New York has the lowest percentage. Our barbecue-loving hearts can’t imagine!
That’s it for your dose of BBQ trivia. We’d love to hear from you – what are your favorite BBQ styles and restaurants?

Is Menu Labeling Finally Here or Not?

Only a few more days stand between the FDA’s May 7 compliance deadline for the federal menu labeling standard signed into law by President Obama in 2010. But that compliance date has been delayed several times already, and its future isn’t entirely clear at this point, either.

Although Congress passed the law in 2010, FDA did not finalize its rule implementing it until December 2014. After that, FDA delayed the rule’s compliance date until December 1, 2016; Congress subsequently delayed it until May 5, 2017; and FDA delayed it once more until May 7, 2018.

So, we’re there – right? No, not exactly.

On February 6, the House passed H.R. 772, the so-called "Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act," which amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act to clarify the information certain retail food chain establishments, with 20 or more locations, must disclose about nutrition to the consumer. This amendment sought to prevent overly burdensome regulations for certain establishments, such as convenience stores, supermarkets, grocery stores and pizza restaurants, and to provide flexibility in how restaurants display calorie information.

Specifically, the bill allows retail food establishments where the majority of orders are placed by customers who are off-premise at the time their order is placed, such as pizza restaurants, to disclose nutritional information on a remote-access menu (such as an online menu) as the sole method of disclosure instead of on-premise wall signs or menus. The bill also eliminates criminal penalties and allows restaurants and retailers to take corrective action as well as preempts civil litigation for violations of the federal menu labeling law and any state laws that may exist. The bill makes accommodations for inadvertent variations that occur during the food preparation process.

This bill was received in the Senate on February 7, 2018, where it must clear committee and be voted on and passed by the Senate body before being sent to President Trump for signature. Should all that in fact happen, the compliance date would have to be moved once again to allow the FDA time to write the regulations necessary to implement the new law. Actually, the Senate version of the bill (S. 261) contains language specifically stating, “Regulations pursuant to this bill or the clause amended by this bill cannot take effect earlier than two years after final regulations are promulgated.” We would be looking at sometime late in 2020 as the next earliest compliance date if that language remained in the final bill.

On the other hand, if the Senate fails to act or to act in time for the bill-to-law process to be completed before May 7, the 2010 law and its resultant regulations will go into effect, and the FDA will be required to ensure compliance with those rules. While retail food establishments affected by the original legislation should be prepared for compliance on May 7, we’ll keep an eye on the outcome of these intervening legislative efforts.

Pack your bags, we’re going on a BBQuest!

Apron is producing a new original, online video series for Beef Loving Texans called “BBQuest”. This documentary-style, episodic series takes a look at some of the best barbecue joints in Texas, uncovering secret menu items and other hidden gems.

Season one features barbecue restaurants and other popular day-trip attractions in Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. BBQuest kicked off with Austin, filming at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in March. The series launches later this summer.

The event at Cooper’s was incredibly well attended with Texans lining up around the building wanting to see bands William Clark Green and Paul Cauthen and eat some delicious barbecue.

The goal of BBQuest is to share Texans’ love of barbecue with other Texans by showcasing popular and out-of-the-way barbecue joints across the state. These different barbecue restaurants and pitmasters highlight the diversity of barbecue beef recipes and grilling tips.

About Beef Loving Texans

Beef Loving Texans is Texas Beef Council’s consumer brand created to share unique recipes, stories, cooking and shopping tips and expert nutrition information. Beef Loving Texans is a community built around Texas pride, heritage and our shared love for beef. We represent the Texas Beef Council and the 130,000 beef farmers and ranchers across the state. Beef Loving Texans works to inspire mealtime solutions that create special moments and balanced lifestyles with beef.

More information about Beef Loving Texans can be found at

The Latest Food Trends Are Actually Technology Trends

The food we eat and the way we find it impacts our daily routines. But many of the most cutting-edge food trends are actually not about food at all – they’re all about technology.

Because of developments in technology and the proliferation of smartphones, consumer expectations for convenience have changed. The same technology that allows consumers to share photos and choose music on demand has entered the food scene, and it’s not going away any time soon.

The way consumers find and receive food reflects a growing focus on convenience as an important part of the user experience.

Grocery Store with a Cashier-Less Twist

E-commerce giant Amazon has long been a pioneer in the food delivery space, with the successful grocery delivery service Amazon Fresh inspiring many other services to follow suit.

Now they are piloting a service in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle called Amazon Go, a service allowing customers to enter a physical Amazon-owned grocery store, pick the items they want, and return home without checking out. Instead, an app tracks customer entry and each time an item is removed or returned to a shelf, adding items to the customer’s virtual cart in the process. When the customer is finished shopping, they just leave the store, and Amazon charges their Amazon account, sending them a receipt using information from the app.

The end result is a customer who has the experience of picking out exactly what they want and leaving the store without having to stop to pay. As Gen Y becomes the largest consumer base in the nation, this “grab and go” style of shopping represents the intersection of convenience and customer experience so many millennials crave.

Grocery Delivery without the Grocery Store

Although online grocery delivery has been steadily growing for years, its growth is expected to increase as more and more millennials become the breadwinners of their households. In fact, “online grocery shopping could grow five-fold over the next decade, with American consumers spending upwards of $100 billion on food-at-home items by 2025,” according to a recent study.

One notable company in the grocery delivery business is Instacart, which connects personal shoppers with customers for a small fee. In its first three years, the company skyrocketed in value to $2 billion and was named “America’s Most Promising Company” in 2015 by Forbes.

Convenience doesn’t stop at grocery delivery, however. Services like Uber Eats, Favor and Postmates also cater to a need for convenience in dining, delivering food and convenience store items from virtually any restaurant or corner store.

Meal Prepping Made Easy with Meal Kits

These services deliver fresh ingredients and recipes right to your door. Blue Apron delivers three million meals a month to U.S. homes, and according to at least one report, HelloFresh has worldwide revenues of $290 million. Convenience isn’t the only message with these brands, however. Customers still want the experience of cooking fresh, homemade meals in their own kitchens without having to go the store, and in this respect, Blue Apron and HelloFresh have resonated with consumers.

Even delivery services as successful as these still have to grow and adapt with their customers, including the way they deliver information about their services to those same consumers. Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Freshly and other ingredient delivery services have been placing advertisements in podcasts, on YouTube and a plethora of other Gen Y-friendly platforms in order to continuously deliver their key message: “you want convenience, we can help.”

Grocery Store Drive-Through: Curbside Pickup

As trends in delivery have given customers a reason to skip a visit to the store, conventional grocery chains are racing to catch up through new and inventive ways, one of the most popular being curbside pickup. Grocery stores including Target, Walmart, Kroger, Wegman’s (based in the Northeast) and H-E-B (based in Texas), have all installed curbside pickup to varying degrees as an option for customers who don’t want to spend time perusing the aisles of a store. Through curbside pickup, they can make their grocery selections and pay online, and an associate at the store will prepare it to be picked up at a designated spot in the store or along the front curb.

Curbside pickup functions as a “bridge” between full-on grocery delivery services and the traditional grocery shopping experience. The growth of curbside pickup services shows that the intersection of convenience and experience operates on a spectrum rather than strictly black and white, and grocery brands who cater to older generations or embody traditional elements in their branding should take note.

Key Takeaways for Food Brands

As food brands continue to adapt their delivery methods and update their technology offerings, they must also remember to continue adapting their communication:

Engage in online two-way communication: When the local grocery store was the only option, grocers didn’t have to listen to customers at the same magnitude. Today, consumers expect their preferences to be heard and responded to – otherwise they’ll take their business to one of the numerous other options.

Maintain a strong digital presence: Food retailers should have a strong presence on social media with responses on-demand to match customer expectations, along with digital capabilities like couponing and recipe organizers. Texas retail giant H-E-B does a great job with both their website and digital app. Even CVS, now in the grocery space, is incredibly targeted with their app. When I walk into their store, their location tracking automatically recognizes me and serves me coupons and reminders.

Share convenience messages with experience in mind: The convenience messaging has to follow suit with the convenience medium. Beyond the user experience being simple, consumers have to understand how retailers are making their lives easier.

The trick for food brands in this rapidly changing consumer space is to make this very complex technology look and feel simple to consumers – not an easy task. But with the right tools and an open mindset, companies who listen to their customers can find the intersection of convenience and experience, becoming pioneers in their own right in food – and technology – trends of the future.

Communicating GMOs in a TL;DR World

TL;DR: "Too Long; Didn’t Read."

You’ve probably noticed TL;DR versions of stories popping up on news sites, where three or four bullet points recap a (now considered lengthy) 500-word article. CNN calls this feature “Story highlights.”

The New York Times has started summarizing its top stories in bullets on its homepage. Email newsletters such as The Skimm have flourished in recent years, providing readers with a three-minute daily digest of all the news they need for the day in a pithy, easy-to-read format.

The way consumers take in their news is changing for a few reasons. Because of the internet, there is simply a much larger volume of news available today than 10 years ago. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 81 percent of Americans get at least some of their news through websites, apps or social networking sites. There is even more competition when you consider other digital communication forms like text messaging and email. With 8 trillion text messages sent each year, it hardly seems to leave room for much else.

For food brands needing to communicate complex issues, this consumer mindset creates challenges. It can feel nearly impossible to communicate a complex issue such as FSMA, GMO use or traceability in a few bullet points, but there are ways brands can relay their message successfully.

Know your audience.

Brands falter when they make assumptions about their audiences. Instead, it’s important to ask critical questions such as:

  • Who is my target audience?
  • What do they know on this subject?
  • What is their attitude toward this subject? Toward my brand?
  • What misperceptions will they have on this topic?

If you’re unsure about the answers to these questions, consider investing in a baseline research effort. Online surveys can be fielded quickly and for a fairly low cost these days – it doesn’t have to be a big undertaking. Not only will it better inform your messaging, it will also give you something to measure against later.

Carefully craft your message.

Once you clearly answer these questions, you can better put yourself in your audience’s shoes and craft messages that will resonate. Carefully consider your headline – what is the one thing I want my audience to take away from this message? Lead with that message and let the rest of your messaging support that headline. The food industry is notorious for using technical speak and jargon; be sure to use consumer-friendly, easily digestible language.

Choose your channels.

The number of communication channels available presents both a blessing and a curse. Should you use Twitter, your blog or a newspaper op-ed? With a clear understanding of your audience, you can choose the channels to most effectively reach them. For example, a seafood company may want to communicate the concept of traceability to its customer base in the Southeast United States. Knowing from research that its customers are mainly female grocery shoppers with children who have limited knowledge of the traceability concept, they would be wise to choose a channel this audience uses most frequently, Facebook. Additionally, they might consider video because it performs so strongly on the platform and, if done correctly, is a great medium for synthesizing complex information.

For an example of a job well done, check out this recent #DrinkGoodDoGood campaign from Naked Juice to bring awareness to the issue of food deserts. Looking at their messaging, they clearly understood their audience’s lack of information on the issue and used a simple headline to capture their attention: “Nearly 30 million Americans have limited access to fruits and veggies.” They also used celebrity influencers relevant to their audience to deliver the message. Most importantly, the campaign worked: #DrinkGoodDoGood was used nearly 50,000 times and campaign videos saw nearly one million views.

Story Behind Food Deserts
With all the clutter and misinformation in today’s news, food brands must carefully plan their communication efforts to make sure their target audiences both see and receive their messages.

Is Your Food Product Healthy in Consumers’ Eyes?

It’s no secret Americans are paying more attention to the food they eat – and talking more about it, too. We see huge volumes of conversation, particularly online, around food. For example, according to one recent article, there were 168,375,343 posts on Instagram using the hashtag #food and another 76,239,441 posts for #foodporn.

The increasingly fragmented media ecosystem is shaping the contours of this dialogue. Niche blogs such as SkinnyTaste and Nerd Fitness have quickly become go-to sources of food information, especially for Millennials. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2016 Food and Health Survey tells us one-third of the Millennial generation relies on trusted health, food and nutrition bloggers for information.

Consumers are responding to food news from both traditional and new media outlets by changing their behaviors. According to IFIC:

“The media were a top source that caused a less healthful view of enriched refined grains, saturated fat, added sugars, and low-calorie sweeteners. Whole grains, protein from plant sources, and natural sugars were among the dietary components that gained a more healthful opinion from consumers based on media headlines.”
The IFIC study found that 31 percent of Americans changed their minds about at least one dietary component, such as grains, sugars or protein, for better or worse. In most cases, media headlines and articles were at or near the top of the sources that altered consumers’ opinions, drove changes to their food purchasing decisions, or led them to engage with friends, family or coworkers in conversations about food and nutrition. When given a list of attributes that describe a “healthy eating style,” 51 percent of consumers chose “the right mix of different foods,” followed by “limited or no artificial ingredients or preservatives” (41 percent).
IFIC Food Decisions

Brands can capitalize on these perceptions in their marketing efforts. While consumers care about the perceived health of their food, their perception of healthy food is so broad that almost any brand or product can find a relevant attribute to use in its positioning. Food brands can exercise several options to reach consumers using the latest health trends.

Let’s look at how health messages might sound for a product based on three such options. Low-calorie sweeteners have had it tough lately; after enjoying decades of popularity, real sugar has come back in full force. Consumers are moving away from low-calorie sweeteners as studies have found the body metabolizes these products in the same way it does real sugar.

  • Refute existing health claims. With this option, food brands fight back against disinformation, which oftentimes means going up against trusted consumer sources (and note there’s a distinction here between trusted and credible). A low-calorie sweetener brand could hire its own third-party health experts to talk about the evils of sugar and its path to diabetes and other chronic diseases. However, there are also many health professionals who would argue that real sugar in small doses is better for the body, so this is a risky option for this product.
  • Bolster their own claims. A brand can acknowledge and capitalize on its own strengths. Low-calorie sweeteners could acknowledge the existence and even importance of real sugar, while marketing the benefit of a low-calorie sweetener as a way to manage diabetes and other chronic conditions that afflict millions of Americans.
  • Focus on non-traditional attributes. Sometimes brands simply have to recognize that traditional health messages won’t work for them and instead focus on other factors that consumers perceive as wholesome, such as freshness and authenticity. Many QSR brands have seen success with this option by touting fresh-cut produce and minimally processed meats. However, this option wouldn’t work as well with a heavily processed and largely artificial product such as low-calorie sweeteners.

If I represented a low-calorie sweetener brand, I would go with the bolstering option and own the product’s opportunity to help the 29 million Americans affected by diabetes better manage their condition. The campaign spokesperson could be a relevant health blogger (since we know they are a trusted source) and would include a big media relations push to change the narrative around this product. The important takeaway for brands is to remember that “healthy” is a complex concept that can pose challenges to marketers, but also creates opportunities for new kinds of storytelling.

Red Meat Causes Cancer…Now What?

By now you’ve probably heard about the World Health Organization’s report that dooms us meat-eaters to cancer. Well, kinda. The report actually says eating processed meat like hot dogs, ham and bacon raises the risk of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well.

Probably? What does that even mean? It means the risk is low enough the average person doesn’t need to worry too much about it, but the study is still making waves.

From a rhetorical perspective, I really don’t like seeing such a vague word like “probably” tied to a word as terrifying as “cancer,” especially in a scientific study.

Say what you want about the report, it’s out there. So what is a beef or processed meat producer to do?

First, we have to get inside the minds of the consumer. These consumers are bombarded every day with conflicting health information. Let’s take sugar substitutes for example. In the 1990s, we heard sugar will make you fat and we should use Sweet’N Low. Then we learned Sweet’N Low’s main ingredient, aspartame, will give us cancer, so we switched to Splenda. Then we heard Splenda will kill us, so now we’re on the Stevia/Truvia train with – you guessed it – real sugar making a big comeback. What’s next?

In my opinion, the evidence presented in this study is not nearly compelling enough to create behavior change. Especially when, on the flip side, you have a 105-year-old woman who swears eating bacon daily is the key to her long life.

We can back up this opinion using the Cialdini Core Motives Model, which tells us there are only three motives of persuasion, and they must go in order:

  1. Build Relationships
  2. Reduce Uncertainty
  3. Motivate to Act

In order to get to step three, we have to accomplish steps 1 and 2. For the purposes of this study, while the WHO didn’t provide any specific guidelines on meat consumption, we can assume the desired result from publishing this information is lower consumption of beef and processed meat – motivating action.

Because the WHO failed to build a relationship with consumers or reduce their uncertainty (the word “probably” inherently implies uncertainty), it’s doubtful they have met the burden to motivate the public to act. We’re seeing evidence of that in social media commentary:

Second, we have to consider what consumers want to hear from red meat and processed meat producers. The North American Meat Institute has given producers some air cover by coming out proactively and calling the study bull.

In fact, there may be other studies that refute this evidence, but I wouldn’t advise individual producers to enter the fight on the merits of this study – that’s for the industry to handle. For food brands who receive customer questions about the study, the message back should simply remind customers that with everything in our diet, not just meat, moderation is the key. Consumers pay more attention to their food sources these days and should decide what’s right for their own dietary needs.