Sumfood is a startup based in Auckland, NZ. We're well-educated and well-traveled, with an eclectic mix of professional experience, data science wizardry and food industry insight. In other words, we're not your average band of food safety/transparency warriors.
While our independence sets us apart from government policymakers and food producers, we feel it's important to attend forums dedicated to capturing the state of all-things-food-safety hosted by 'insiders'. So we recently traveled to Washington, DC to attend the Grocery Manufacturer's Association (GMA) Science Forum 2018 aware of the potential biases inherent at an event organised by a group representing leading America’s food, beverage and consumer products companies.
A little history: GMA was founded in 1908 with a focus on 'product safety, science-based public policies and industry initiatives that seek to empower people with the tools and information they need to make informed choices and lead healthier lives'. (One gets numbed by repeated bludgeonings of the word 'empower' at these consumer-focused gatherings.)
Their annual Science Forum 'brings together a roster of acclaimed individuals to keep the science community abreast and ahead of emerging science, innovation, safety and legal requirements in a wide array of areas.' This year's event was held at the Renaissance Hotel and explored food safety, government regulations, global issues, chemical ingredients, nutrition and labeling, biotechnology and more.
In 2018, in Washington, DC, it's a curious feeling to walk into a ballroom full of well-dressed people chatting amiably before a morning panel discussion. Not perhaps since the Nixon administration has the US capital felt so Machiavellian. Despite a maelstrom of daily -- sometimes hourly -- drama that would have sent Shakespeare screaming into the Maryland pines, those convened on a brisk Monday morning were cordial and (mostly) bright-eyed, eager for the conference to begin.
This enthusiasm quickly waned, however, as a trio of undoubtedly qualified gentlemen discussed the challenges faced by manufacturers wishing to implement digital innovations to meet consumer trends. (And who spoke in sentences just like that one.) Sree Ramaswamy, partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, Norbert Kaminski, Director of the Institute for Integrative Toxicology at Michigan State University, and Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia were collegial and well-spoken but offered nothing everyone in the audience didn't already know about the risks of emerging technology and difficulties of communicating food safety-related information to consumers expecting greater transparency. Kaminski made an interesting point: "... people have never cared more and known less about how their food is produced."
Thanks for succinctly summing up why Sumfood exists, Dr. Kaminski.
We next attended a far more engaging Breakout Session entitled 'Consumer Trends in the New Age of Information', a descriptor that in the Internet Age could have been called 'Consumer Trends in the New Age of Disinformation'. The moderator, Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, Ph.D., MPA, Vice President, International Food Information Council Foundation, addressed food confusion with a variety of charts that repeated three simple realities: 1) government agencies are the least trusted sources of food information, while doctors are the most, 2) friends and families play a huge role in determining what foods we eat, and 3) conflicting advice abounds, leading to a general public confused by which foods provide which nutritional benefits.
The next speaker -- Terri Moore, Director, Center for Food Integrity -- presented five groups of news consumers, each with a unique relationship to 'truth': Scientifics, Philosophers, Followers, Wishful Thinkers and Existentialists. She listed strategic opportunities for providers of food information to connect with the Philosophers and Followers, the other groups presumably out of reach. She also pointed out what she called a 'dangerous disconnect': families and family doctors the most trusted to ensure safe food, while federal regulatory agencies and food companies are held most responsible for ensuring safe food.
Darren Seifer, food & beverage industry analyst for market researchers The NPD Group, presented his organisation's findings regarding food consumption by comparing 'What we (consumers) say we're doing' vs 'What we're actually doing'. We say we're cutting back on sugar, avoiding artificial ingredients, checking labels for protein and desiring more protein, whole grains, dietary fiber and vitamin C in our diets. In actual practice, we're purchasing higher levels of organic and non-GMO foods, purchasing more bottled water, pizza and frozen foods and eating more savory snacks. Fresh foods are growing among milennials, who also believe 'clean eating' improves their overall quality of life more so than older generations.
Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Ph.D., RD, FAND, Distinguished Professor of Nutritional Sciences, Co-Director of Graduate Program in Nutritional Sciences, Rutgers University ... (whew) ... made several salient points during her presentation: 1) nutrition information is inaccessible due to unfriendly vocabulary and a math-failing public's inability to read graphs, 2) 'refutational' conversation works, 3) people react better to positive food information, which they'll share via social media more often than negative, and 4) taste is the #1 driver of food choice.
Finally, affable David Fikes, Vice President, Communications and Community/Consumer Affairs of the Food Marketing Institute gave the retailers' perspective. First, who's doing the food shopping? A quarter are single, 2/3 are in some sort of shopping arrangement with someone else, and males are shopping almost as much as females. US consumers shop at 5-7 food venues, four fairly frequently, and more are beginning to shop online. The definitions of convenience and value are undergoing a change as shoppers seek a deeper connection with food. Fikes stressed that food transparency is looming larger in shopping habits, and that it includes a rational element (science) and emotional element (shared values). For the consumer, he said, "the lines between health and wellness, nutrition, food safety, animal welfare and ethics are blurry."
That producers have long blurred those lines went without mention. Disinformation works, after all, and the less consumers truly understand the more vulnerable they are to deceptive marketing. Drawing those lines in clear, black ink is a definitive part of Sumfood's mission statement.
A keynote luncheon address by Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at the US Food & Drug Administration, was a general 'state of the union' of its regulatory agenda, including the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and Intentional Adulteration Rule, and noted a revised compliance date for the updated Nutrition Facts Panel of January 1, 2020. Sadly, lunch was equally flavorless.
Thankfully, a post-lunch Breakout Session on consumer product fraud broke Dr. Ostroff's soporific spell. The first speaker was Holly E. Johnson, Ph.D, Chief Science Officer, American Herbal Products Association. Dr. Johnson brought welcome enthusiasm and a passion for the history of food adulteration that included snippets from a 19th-century text found and examples of green tea adulteration from as far back as 1853. Dr. Johnson brought us quickly to present-day fraud with multiple examples of tainted male sexual enhancement products. Her presentation's focus on herbal supplements mostly fell outside of Sumfood's purview, but we thanked her afterward for snapping everyone to attention.
Another presentation outside of Sumfood's focus on food safety and transparency followed -- Shabbir J. Safdar, Executive Director, The Partnership for Safe Medicines laid out lessons learned from the global pharmaceutical counterfeiting industry -- but we enjoyed this photo presented as a 'mental health break' somewhere around the midway point:
If it was good enough for Mr. Safdar's presentation, it's good enough for ours.
An engaging John Spink, Ph.D., Director & Assistant Professor, Food Fraud Initiative, Michigan State University followed with a topical food fraud update and terminology survey. He began by establishing the 'official' definition of food fraud -- illegal deception for economic gain using food -- and then moved into examples, motivations, terminology, prevention, and the important difference between food fraud and food adulteration.
Our final Breakout Session of the day covered adherance to the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and a regulation to enhance consumer protection from intentional adulteration; in other words, food defense. Everything presented was important -- though an opening speaker's conjuring of the horrors of Sept. 11 to grab his audience's attention was amateurish -- but all was presented with a focus on food producers' doing what was necessary to avoid prosecution rather than actually protecting consumers from intentional harm. Fair enough, it was a GMA forum, and we came away glad food defense is on the radars of food producers ... even if merely to 'CYA'. Besides a niggling sense that everyone involved is paying lip service to the threat, we came away with the four key assessments of a food defense plan: 1) potential public health impact, 2) degree of physical access to product(s), 3) ability of attacker to contaminate product(s), and 4) the possibility of an inside attacker(s).