The 2012 Farm Bill
Don’t be fooled by the name – the 2012 Farm Bill is about food as well as farms. It covers the biggest food commodities, such as corn, soybeans, sugar and wheat, as well as agricultural items produced on a smaller scale, like certain vegetables.
This is going to mean heightened lobbying efforts from all areas of industry, with potentially huge implications for food and ingredient prices. Nevertheless, although farm subsidies tend to grab headlines, farmers are not the main recipients of Farm Bill funding. The Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Food Stamps, also falls under the remit of the legislation, accounting for a massive 80% of funding provided in the most recent (2008) version.
But how far the Farm Bill can move forward this year is still uncertain. Since 2012 is also an election year, some have suggested that the whole process could be moved back until after the elections in November – or lawmakers could choose to adopt an as-yet-unreleased draft bill that was put together last fall.
Others have predicted that work on the Farm Bill could begin as early as January or February: Watch this space.
Functional (and whole) foods for seniors
Older Americans are taking their health more seriously – and as the US population ages, that means increased interest in all kinds of trends associated with healthy food, including local, organic and whole foods, as well as those that promise a particular health benefit, particularly for the heart, joints, brain and eyes.
As Baby Boomers take their health into their own hands, functional foods for disease prevention will become more popular. Hand-in-hand with a continued emphasis on whole foods, older Americans will become increasingly interested in the added health benefits that they can gain from foods, rather than supplements alone.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the health of American children was firmly in the spotlight during 2011, and the issue will only get bigger in 2012.
The relaxation of school nutrition standards, which resulted in a decision to allow tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable in school lunches, attracted derision in 2011, summing up for many the clash between kids’ health interests on the one hand, and industry interests on the other. It seems a middle ground is still a long way off.
Expect even more grappling between industry and public health advocates over the coming year, with the marketing of foods and beverages to children to remain a major issue.
Proposed voluntary nutritional standards for foods marketed to children were released in April, and watered down in October, and it is likely that they will continue to be postponed after a congressional spending bill specified that a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out before the voluntary standards can be finalized.
Following the deadly listeria outbreak in cantaloupes late last year, industry and regulators alike will be under renewed pressure to safeguard the US food supply from foodborne pathogens as the New Year begins.
The Food Safety Modernization Act will play a significant role. Passed into law a year ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has secured $39m for its implementation in 2012 – much less than the $1.4bn over five years that it estimated was necessary to fully implement the law, but still one of the biggest government agency funding injections.
Related activity is likely to ramp up over the course of the year, including increased inspections and food recalls. In addition, several other provisions of the legislation are due to be implemented this year, including requiring registered facilities to develop a food safety plan and conduct a hazard analysis by the spring.
The natural debate
Natural will remain a top marketing term in 2012 – but consumers are becoming savvier about the fact that it is unregulated. Add to that a spate of class action lawsuits from consumers who claim they were misled by natural claims on genetically modified foods, or those with particular ingredients that consumers claim are unnatural for other reasons, and you’ve got an issue that’s ready to explode.
In the medium to long-term, the word will either lose its power over the consumer or the FDA will be pressured to come up with a definition – something it has resisted until now. Don’t expect things to move quickly, but do expect to see plenty of controversy over this seemingly simple little word in the coming year.
And look out for more evasive synonyms on food packaging…