Thanks to dependencies on supply chains and cooperative environments, food companies face down risk every year—and many of these confrontations take place before consumers ever get involved.
Ranging from meats passed off as other meats and dying pollinators to hepatitis outbreaks and worker concerns, 2013 has seen a number of scandals raise consumers' eyebrows—and potentially prices in grocery stores.
Here are five of the top global problems facing the food industry this year.
1. STRAY GMO WHEAT IN U.S. CHILLS ASIAN PURCHASES
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s May announcement that an Oregon farmer found an unapproved strain of genetically engineered wheat in his field raised safety concerns in Asia, where few countries allow the import of GMO cereals for human consumption. In the aftermath, Japan canceled a tender offer for U.S. grain, and South Korea, China and the Philippines additionally grew cautious.
Monsanto Co., who developed the wheat years earlier and shelved it, tried to alleviate concerns, saying that the finding was an isolated incident—and even alleging sabotage when farmers in Kansas, Washington and other states filed class-action lawsuits over damages resulting from the discovery. On Friday, the USDA announced that it had not found or been informed of anything that revealed the incident to be anything more than an isolated occurrence. Will that be enough to alleviate concerns?
2. HORSE MEAT IN EUROPE
Horsemeat made global headlines earlier this year after the revelation that it was sold as beef and other meats in Europe. The meat was sold as various beef products (including diced beef and Ikea meatballs) in countries including the United Kingdom, Hungary, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, and was even detected in chicken nuggets in Greece. Eventually, authorities traced horsemeat sold as beef to Dutch wholesaler Willy Selten, owner of now-bankrupt Willy Selten BV. Selten sold around 55,000 tons of horsemeat as beef, and was eventually arrested for alleged false accounting and fraud.
According to Dutch prosecutors, the business allegedly received as much as 330 tons of the meat from the Netherlands, England and Ireland in 2011 and 2012. In recent months, New Mexico’s Valley Meat Co. has faced several roadblocks in a controversial bid to slaughter horses—including the New Mexico Food Act, which would prevent meat from horses treated with drugs considered harmful to human health from being sold. In a similar meat scandal, 63 meat traders in China were arrested in May for selling over $1.6 million of adulterated rat meat as lamb.
3. DECLINING HONEYBEE POPULATIONS THREATEN NUMEROUS CROPS
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in May that an estimated one-third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared last winter due to a combination of pesticides, fungicides, parasites, viruses and malnutrition. The British Beekeepers Association announced similar losses this month. The global honeybee population has been in decline for several years now, but this year reached the point where there were barely enough in California this March to pollinate the almond crop. In a bid to fight so-called colony collapse disorder—which not only threatens honey, but a $30 billion crop industry dependent on bees for pollination—the European Commission adopted restrictions on the neonectinoid pesticides clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam due to their “high acute risks” to bees. Researchers have also linked corn syrup, long fed to bees as an industry practice, to colony collapse.
Crops threatened by the loss of honeybees include apples, carrots, lemons and watermelons, and Whole Foods recently launched a campaign showing what a produce section without bees would look like, removing a staggering 237 items (or 52% of the typical selection) from shelves in its University Heights, Rhode Island store.
4. HEPATITIS HEADACHES FOR BERRY MIX MAKERS
This month, a hepatitis A outbreak traced to a Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend frozen berry mix sold at Costco sickened as many at least 99 consumers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Washington. Townsend Farms issued a recall for the mix, and Costco provided vaccinations to customers who had eaten the berries. Still, affected consumers in the eight states involved filed class-action lawsuits against Townsend Farms. The outbreak has been linked to one in Europe earlier this year that left over 70 people ill from the infectious liver disease. Both outbreaks also involved hepatitis A virus genotype 1B, which is typically found in North Africa and the Middle East. In addition, yet another outbreak in British Columbia in 2012, also related to a frozen berry blend, was linked to pomegranate seeds from Egypt.
5. THE FUTURE OF TEA AND COFFEE
Two caffeinated staples enjoyed by billions are facing global crises. Cafédirect released a report today titled "RealiTEA," revealing that despite the cost of growing tea climbing 94% over the past five years, prices paid to growers have increased only 25% and tea on shelves in the U.K. costs only 3.8% more than it did three years ago. Naturally, this process is harming smallholder growers, and the report reveals that compromises that must be made to keep low prices in stores will come primarily at further expense to these growers, and, as a result, to the quality of the final product. In interviews with tea growers from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, Cafédirect found that the traditional and artisanal method of plucking the top two leaves and a bud is largely falling by the wayside to less accurate machine cutting used for low-grade tea in the mass market. Farmers are unfortunately choosing between continued survival and the quality of their product.
Meanwhile, a group of Colombian coffee producers went on strike in February due to the coffee bean’s low costs creating poverty among farmers. The growers claimed they didn’t feel represented by the leaders of the National Federation of Coffee Producers, which made an agreement with Colombia’s government, and images from sources such as Universidad Pública de Colombia circulated on Facebook portraying the farmers as heroes. As if that wasn't enough, Central American coffee plantations face further issues as the dust-like fungus known as coffee leaf rust devastates bushes across the region. El Salvador and Guatemala even had as much as 74% and 70% of growing areas respectively affected by the orange, bush-destroying fungus. Production is expected to fall as much as 40% in the coming season, which is likely to affect the prices paid for premium coffee worldwide.
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