Is the conventional food and beverage market going natural?

Kathleen Merrigan, USDA deputy secretaryA convergence of factors points to a shift within the conventional food world that natural, nutritious and sustainable should be on the corporate dashboard of any successful or wannabe successful food company. A chain of recent events points to a realignment of the supply chain that could facilitate changes in the near future and allow manufacturers to better meet consumer demand for products that are eco-conscious and healthy.

The first signal came on June 3 at the Organic Summit held in Stevenson, Washington, where organic policy makers, farmers, manufacturers and media experts watched a video statement from Kathleen Merrigan, USDA deputy secretary. Watch here.

Merrigan pledged that organic will be integrated across all agencies at USDA. She stated that, "here is where I'd like to fulfill a promise I made to many of you \[citing her history in writing the organic standards\]… and that is, organic should be integrated across all the agencies, not just the NOP, but each and every agency at USDA should have some engagement with the organic sector," adding that "Organic can no longer be stove-piped at USDA."

Merrigan also called for the organic standards to have sharper teeth for better compliance. She also provided an overview of the organic policy trajectory at USDA, which included the organic provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill and noted the upcoming deadline of June 17, 2009 for the Organic Production Survey — the first ever wide-scale survey of organic farming in the United States. The survey will allow USDA to better grasp the scale of organic farming and predict whether the current system will meet the growing consumer demand for sustainably grown foods.

The message a week later at the Institute of Food Technologists show in Anaheim followed this same theme in a post show release saying that "nutrition, environmental health and food safety" are coupled in consumer's minds, namely through the word sustainability.

Though consumers place different values on the word sustainable, the message is clear, "terms such as organic, natural, local, fair trade and carbon footprint are evolving in consumer consciousness." Lynn Dornblaser of Mintel International Group in Chicago, IL, said in an education session that number of people classifying themselves as green consumers has risen, and that will continue. "About 40 percent more say they are more concerned about the environment than they were just a year ago," Dornblaser said. "Who would have thought we would be talking about carbon footprint?"

"We almost look at food now as a political button. It's almost a statement," said Sylvia B Rowe, president of SR Strategy LLC in Washington, DC. Food politics are no stranger to the conventional food world — though the word "sustainable," coupled with "nutrition" and "food safety" are terms probably more familiar to the natural products industry.

Given this convergence of ideals, it may not be a shock that within hours of the IFT show turning out the lights at the Anaheim convention center, the Natural Products Association formally announced that David Seckman, executive director and CEO of the Natural Products Association, is leaving his post to head up the Food Processing Suppliers Association (FPSA).

Seckman will bring along years of experience within the natural product industry in regard to issues surrounding regulatory legislation, food safety and GMPs — all urgent, pending issues for the food industry and the current administration.

Seckman's move to FPSA might not seem so striking if not for the additional decision to co-locate the IFT Food Expo with FPSA in Chicago in 2010. It's no secret that Chicago is the backyard to most of the major players in the conventional food industry, all of which are eager to learn more about how to meet the growing demand for nutritious and sustainable food.

When asked whether the co-location of the two associations in one single event signals a greater interest of the conventional food industry to natural products, Seckman responded, "The fact that FPSA members are providing machinery that processes all types of food, including natural ingredients, coupled with growing consumer demand for these products, it's certainly possible."

If food is the next hot political button, then Merrigan is the perfect person to push the right buttons to integrate certified organic agriculture into the folds of USDA and Seckman will have his finger on the pulse to get Congress and the food industry to facilitate large scale change in how our food is processed. A natural fit, I would say.

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