Food inches toward center stage in U.N. climate talks

U.N. climate talks kick off with new focus on food and agriculture. Deadly cantaloupe outbreak sparks more recalls. Plus, the latest on those lead-tainted applesauce pouches.


A green screen reads: United Nations Climate Change and COP28UAE - Dubai 2023. Six delegates are seated on a panel style set up underneath the large screen.

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! I’m happy to be back in your inboxes after the holiday break last week. Today’s fun fact: This is the 120th edition of the newsletter! 

Hello! For the newbies around here … my name is Helena Bottemiller Evich, and I’m an award-winning reporter who’s covered food policy for nearly 15 years. I previously led food and agriculture coverage at Politico before launching Food Fix in 2022. (More about me here). Welcome!

As always, I love getting your feedback. How did you find this newsletter? Reply to this email to land in my inbox, or drop me a note at helena@foodfix.co.

Alright, let’s get to it –

Helena

***

Today, in Food Fix: 

– U.N. climate talks kick off with new focus on food and ag 

– The latest on those lead-tainted applesauce pouches 

– Deadly cantaloupe outbreak sparks more recalls

***

Food inches toward center stage in U.N. climate talks

For quite some time, food and agriculture have been pretty much M.I.A. at the annual United Nations climate talks. But this latest round – COP 28, which kicked off Thursday in Dubai – food is finally getting a seat at the big kids’ table.

What’s new: “The COP 28 presidency, the United Arab Emirates, has prioritized the link between food security and climate change for the first time since the annual climate COP began in 1995,” per Tania Karas over at Devex. “While most of the talks will focus on increasing renewable energy and financing the costs of climate change, this year’s summit will also feature a dedicated Food, Agriculture and Water Day on Dec. 10, as well as a food pavilion with an impressive event and speaker list.” 

Devex notes that there are at least 555 (not a typo!) “food and land use-related events taking place at the summit, according to a thorough list compiled by Oliver Camp of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.”

This is a huge change. During the Obama administration, I remember Sam Kass, who’d just stepped away from his role as White House lead on food policy issues, desperately trying to get world leaders at the Paris climate talks (COP 21) to pay attention to food by cooking meals with ingredients most threatened by climate change – “a meal your kids won’t be able to eat.” Despite Kass and others’ best efforts, the issue has remained lower-profile and lower-priority, though it’s slowly risen in the ranks.

Political context: It’s certainly remarkable that it took dozens of rounds of U.N. climate talks for food and ag to get this level of attention – despite agriculture accounting for somewhere between a quarter to a third of global emissions, second only to the energy sector – but it’s not altogether surprising. Though other issues aren’t exactly smooth sailing, food is much more politically sensitive than say fuel or transportation. Agriculture is also much more decentralized than an industry like energy, which makes it fundamentally harder to tackle. As the largest scale land-use issue globally that involves millions of farmers, it’s both complicated and politically fraught. 

Agreeing to action: More than 130 countries, including the United States, today signed on to a pledge to reduce the environmental impacts of food and agriculture and work on climate resilience. Find that declaration here. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also gave remarks today at the summit focused on food. Find that here.

Meat wars: The United Nations’ food arm – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – is expected to release a new roadmap for food systems to play their part in limiting global warming in the coming years. As part of that initiative, “nations that over-consume meat will be advised to limit their intake, while developing countries — where under-consumption of meat adds to a prevalent nutrition challenge — will need to improve their livestock farming,” reported Bloomberg’s Agnieszka de Sousa. Last week’s headline read: “Eat less meat is message for rich world in food’s first net zero plan.” 

Though the roadmap is non-binding, this can still rile up a political fight in the U.S. where any dietary advice even approaching the issue of sustainability is a third-rail issue. (Seriously, several years ago scientists advised the government to include sustainability as part of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and it sparked an all-out war in Washington, and now the issue is so toxic it’s not even really on the table, at least not for the time being.) Other countries, in contrast, have shown more willingness to incorporate climate considerations into nutrition advice, so proclamations like this can still have a sweeping impact. The climate summit is also featuring a roughly two-thirds plant-based menu to further highlight the link between greenhouse gas emissions and livestock production.  

U.S. ag shows up: Another thing that’s different about this round of climate talks is the extent to which major American food and agriculture players are directly engaging. Chris Clayton at DTN noted the shift toward more participation: “The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, for instance, has gotten more engaged in recent COP events and is sending a group of board members. The U.S. Soybean Export Council, U.S. Grains Council, the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and the North American Meat Institute are just a few of the groups expected to participate in this year’s conference.” 

Protein PR: Part of the U.S. presence will certainly be aimed at countering the pro-plant based/anti-meat messages coming from much of the rest of the world. “Big meat companies and lobby groups are planning a large presence at the COP 28 climate conference, equipped with a communications plan to get a pro-meat message heard by policymakers throughout the summit,” The Guardian and DeSmog reported Thursday. “Documents … show that the meat industry is poised to ‘tell its story and tell it well’ at the Dubai conference.”

Ag emissions up: This all comes as global emissions from agriculture have grown substantially with a good chunk of that attributed to meat and dairy production: “Livestock accounted for slightly more than half of the 14 percent increase in global greenhouse gas emissions by agriculture from 2000 to 2021, said a Food and Agriculture Organization report on Wednesday,” wrote Chuck Abbott over at FERN’s Ag Insider

At COP? If you’re attending the summit, I’d love to hear how it’s going. Drop me a note: helena@foodfix.co

***

The latest on those lead-tainted pouches 

At least 57 kids are reported to have high levels of lead in their blood tied to now-recalled cinnamon applesauce pouches. As I noted on Tuesday, this situation has ballooned pretty quickly. The initial safety alert to consumers went out a month ago based on just four cases of elevated lead in North Carolina. It now spans 26 states.

As I recently reported, the only reason we know about this situation is because of routine blood lead screening that’s supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and some solid detective work by health officials in North Carolina. 

What’s going on here? Consumer advocates initially praised FDA for acting quickly to alert consumers and recall the products – and the agency did respond rapidly – but a month into this debacle, there are still some pretty big unanswered questions. We still do not know for sure what caused the problem (it’s most likely the cinnamon, but that’s still not confirmed), and we don’t know if the FDA has been into the plant that made these pouches. 

It sure seems like the agency isn’t on the ground, which is perplexing considering the sensitivity and severity of the situation.  

Late Thursday FDA issued an update to the public, noting that WanaBana, the Ecuadorian company that made the pouches, released a new statement saying the “firm’s leading hypothesis to date is that the cinnamon is the source of the elevated lead levels in the recalled products.” 

The agency further noted that the company said the cinnamon used in the pouches was supplied by Negocios Asociados Mayoristas S.A., operating as Negasmart, a third-party distribution company located in Ecuador.

Thought bubble: I find it very odd that FDA cited the company’s own findings. Why doesn’t the agency have its own independent conclusions? 

“The FDA is continuing to work with Ecuadorian authorities to investigate the source of the contamination and to determine if the cinnamon in the recalled products was used in other products or distributed as a raw ingredient to other countries,” the agency said. “FDA has confirmed that Negasmart does not import cinnamon directly into the U.S.”


The silver lining: “At this time, FDA has no indication that this issue extends beyond these recalled products,” said the agency. “But to further protect public health, FDA is screening incoming shipments of cinnamon from multiple countries for lead contamination. As of November 30, 2023, there have been no screening results that have tested positive for higher levels of lead.”

More reading: From the Washington Post: “A child loved cinnamon applesauce. Then he got lead poisoning.”

***

Deadly cantaloupe outbreak sparks more recalls

Three more companies have recalled cantaloupe in response to a rapidly expanding and deadly Salmonella outbreak across the U.S. and Canada

Kwik Trip, Bix Produce, and GHGA have joined the list of brands recalling products this week – in this case, fruit cups. Other companies have recalled cut fruit and whole cantaloupes in recent weeks. 

So far, nearly 200 people have gotten sick across the U.S. and Canada, with dozens hospitalized and three reported deaths. 

***

What I’m reading

The chicken tycoons vs. the antitrust hawks (New York Times). This is a fascinating deep dive by H. Claire Brown on how the Biden administration’s antitrust crackdown on the chicken industry hasn’t gone as planned. “In 2022, the Justice Department filed lawsuits claiming poultry processors held annual retreats where they conspired to suppress workers’ pay and used a data-sharing platform that enabled anticompetitive behavior,” Brown writes. “The poultry industry seemed like a straightforward target for reform, in contrast to more complicated battles against Big Tech. But today the government’s case against Big Chicken feels more like a cautionary tale about the difficulty of reviving antitrust enforcement after a half century of neglect.”

No more dry burgers: McDonald’s overhauls its biggest item (Wall Street Journal). “McDonald’s decided it’s had enough with dry patties and squishy buns. For the past seven years, the chain that made its name on burgers has been on a quest to improve its signature offering,” reports Heather Haddon. “The changes are now rolling out in the U.S., including on its Big Mac. The two all-beef patties are cooked in smaller batches for a more uniform sear. There’s more special sauce. The lettuce, cheese and pickles have been rethought to be fresher and meltier, and the bun is now a buttery brioche, with the sesame seeds more randomly scattered for a homemade look. The more than 50 tweaks on its burgers add up to the Chicago-based company’s biggest upgrades in decades to its core menu.”

Will Wegovy eat the food industry’s lunch? (Rabobank Research). “Last month, the observation by Walmart’s US CEO, John Furner, that people on the new medications who food shop at their stores were buying ‘less units, slightly less calories,’ quickly mushroomed into a wider fear that Ozempic, Wegovy, and now Zepbound are going to eat not just the food industry’s lunch but probably its breakfast, mid-morning snack, and dinner too,” writes Nicholas Fereday, executive director of food and consumer trends at Rabobank, who lays out what food industry leaders should consider based on what we know so far. “This new generation of drugs is an exciting development in expanding the medical profession’s toolkit to help improve the health outcomes (not just weight loss) of the millions of people living with obesity and overweight.”

A new leader for the Office of Regulatory Affairs (FDA). An email to FDA staff from Commissioner Robert Califf on Thursday announced the selection of Michael Rogers as the permanent Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs (ACRA) in the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA). “Michael has been serving as the Acting ACRA since Carol Cave retired in September, and he has embraced the role with an abundance of energy, positivity and enthusiasm,” Califf wrote. “The work of ORA is at the heart of our mission, carrying out core field-based operations that support the entire FDA Portfolio.”

***

Don’t miss out! Upgrade to get Food Fix twice a week

Become a paid subscriber to unlock access to two newsletters each week, packed with insight, analysis and exclusive reporting on what’s happening in food in Washington and beyond. You’ll also get full access to the Food Fix archive – a great way to get smart on all things food policy.

Expense it: Most paid subscribers expense their subscriptions through work. It’s worth asking! 

We also offer discounts for government, academia and students. View subscription options.

Individuals who participate in SNAP or other federal nutrition programs also qualify for a free Food Fix subscription – just email info@foodfix.co.  

Get the Friday newsletter: If someone forwarded you this email, sign yourself up for the free Friday edition

You can also follow Food Fix on X (formerly known as Twitter) and LinkedIn.

See you next week!