Companies can and should do more to eliminate lead in food – our kids’ health depends on it

As a parent, environmental professional and wife of an accomplished chef, I spend a lot of time thinking about food and how to make the best choices when it comes to feeding my family. That’s why EDF’s report detailing lead in food has me so concerned.

Usually I think about, and maybe even felt guilty at times, about the nutritional content and environmental impacts of the food I choose, but it never occurred to me to worry that the food itself could be contaminated with lead.  And, let’s just be clear – there is no scientific evidence of a safe level of lead in blood. Lead can harm a child’s developing brain, potentially leading to learning problems, lower IQ, as well as cause behavioral problems.

While I knew that the major exposures to lead come from lead-based paint, contaminated soil and dust, and drinking water, I didn’t realize that in order to have a comprehensive plan to protect my child from harm, contaminated food should also be on my list.

According to EDF’s analysis of FDA data from 2003 to 2013, 20% of baby food and 14% of other food sampled contained detectable levels of lead. The baby food items with the highest rates of detection include grape, mixed fruit, apple, and pear juices, sweet potatoes and carrots, arrowroot cookies, and teething biscuits.

The following chart details the percentage of various food samples where lead was detected.

There are two key takeaways from this chart.

  1. Some product types have a high percent of lead detection across the samples, while other product types have much smaller percentages.
  2. While many samples of products have detected levels of lead, every category has some products with no detectable levels of lead. This suggests that lead in food is a problem with a solution.

So, what is a food company to do?

  • Step 1 – Set a goal of less than 1 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in baby food and other foods marketed to young children
  • Step 2 – Test for lead
  • Step 3 – Identify the source of contamination – is it the raw ingredients, something the food is exposed to during processing, or something else?
  • Step 4 – Take steps to eliminate the contamination
  • Step 5 – Remain vigilant – keep testing and improving until the contamination is eliminated

What can you do?

Ask companies if they regularly test their products for lead; and whether they ensure that there is less than 1 ppb of lead in the food and juices they sell. If they don’t, let them know it is a high priority concern for you.

I’m about to have another baby, and I hope that by the time baby number two is here and ready to eat solids, food companies have taken the steps necessary to eliminate lead. That way, I can spend more time focusing on eating great food and less time worrying about if it’s  contaminated.

U.S. out of Paris? Time for companies to find the next LED lightbulb

As I’m writing this blog, the news is breaking that President Trump may pull out of the Paris agreement. Which makes my story about Walmart and product innovation all the more relevant.

My relationship with Walmart started over six years ago, working towards their 20 MMT greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goal. After some trial and error, and an exhaustive scan of greenhouse gas hotspots, it became clear that we would need to attack every point of the product lifecycle (including things like fertilizer optimization for crops and factory energy efficiency). Little did we know at the time that promoting energy-efficient products to Walmart shoppers–particularly LED lightbulbs–would prove to be so important to reach the goal in 2015.

As Walmart sets out on its next ambitious goal to remove 1 gigaton (aka 1 billion tons) of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) from the supply chain, I can’t help but wonder what the next game-changing product will be?

I don’t think the solution will be as easy as another LED lightbulb, but rather a series of disruptive innovations around how products are designed, sold and treated at the end of use.

Design: how to reduce impacts from the start 

Last month’s event focused on climate impacts, which largely come from the materials and processes used to manufacture and transport products.  Design changes can play a big role in reducing those impacts. It can also transform products into circular products, with their materials being recaptured by the economy or the planet to live another life as a component of a new product.

Point of Sale: how products are sold

The face of retail is shifting – not just from brick-and-mortar stores to online retail, but from an economy dominated by retail-to-customer relationships to one with more peer-to-peer transactions – just look at Airbnb and Lyft. This “sharing economy” has the potential to displace the number of new items needed as people increasingly use what has already been manufactured, sold and used. This can have big environmental benefits – sort of like eliminating food waste, but for general merchandise.

It hasn’t really taken off yet for retail, but companies like POSHMARK and ThredUp – where you can buy and sell fashion – and Spinlister – where you can rent someone’s bike – are working to change that. This will become more prevalent over time, especially as millennials have shown a preference for owning less things.

End of life: how to extend the life of a product

The sharing economy has the potential to delay a product from coming to its end of life as quickly, but once it does, innovative companies like Stuffstr can help consumers better manage what they do with their products by making resale, donations, recycling just as easy as throwing things away.

And, Stuffstr isn’t just an innovation that benefits end-consumers, but one that can help retailers understand how consumers use, and part with, the products they buy – creating opportunities to stay relevant as the sharing economy continues to grow.

What Now?

It’s clear that Walmart’s goal will catalyze innovation in how we think about products and their use. The GHGs that go into creating, selling and disposing of products is too great to ignore. I look forward to seeing which Walmart suppliers step up to the challenge.

 


Follow Jenny on Twitter, @JennyKAhlen


Additional Resources: Supply Chain Solutions Center


 

Food waste, guilt and the millennial mom: how companies can help

edf-business-of-food-blog-graphic_shelton-grp_12-7-16I spend a lot of time these days thinking about food waste.

Why? First, I’m the mother of a toddler who oscillates between being a bottomless pit, easily cleaning her plate, to being a picky eater who only takes a couple of bites before the bulk of her meal ends up in the trash.

Second, I’m married to a chef who, because he’s a smart businessman, runs his kitchen with the precision of a comptroller: wasted food means lost profit, so every scrap of food is utilized wherever possible.

Finally, I interface almost daily with Walmart, the world’s largest grocer. Walmart recently pledged to root out 1 gigaton of greenhouse gas reductions from its global supply chain, and I’m certain that food waste will play an integral part in reaching that goal.

But before you conclude that I’m an outlier—some sort of obsessive, “food waste weirdo”— a recent study shows that I’m not the only one struggling with this issue:

Now we all know that just because one feels guilty about something doesn’t mean one’s behavior will change.  Cost, however, is a frequent driver of behavior, so consider these numbers:

In other words, 2.5-4% of the 2015 US median household income is being thrown away! That’s bad news for our wallets—and our planet (NRDC estimates that food rotting in landfills accounts for 16% of U.S. methane emissions).

So it’s a no-brainer that wasting food serves no one’s interests.  What’s not so clear is: what can be done about it?

A business opportunity… with a coveted consumer

This is where I see a real opportunity for grocers—like Walmart—and the food companies that fill their shelves. For the most part, these companies are talking non-stop these days about how to win over the most coveted customer of all, the “millennial mom”.

Inviting millennial moms to be partners on eliminating food waste could be the perfect strategy. They jenny_helen_expertare young (meaning they have years of brand loyalty ahead of them), cost-conscious and environmentally engaged; saving them money while alleviating their food waste guilt is a clear win-win.

I’m not saying this will be easy; that same study reveals that real barriers exist:

However, while conceding that it’s difficult (if not downright un-wise) to portray millennial moms as a monolithic group, marketing profiles of these women consistently portray them as, a.) hungry for information about products; and b.) willing to take action on issues… but only if roadblocks or impediments have been removed.

So, grocers and food companies, how can you burnish your brand with millennial moms while making a real dent in food waste?

Step number 1: engage and educate

Run marketing campaigns, both in-store and out, that will inform these coveted customers on:

  • Proper handling and storage of their food to minimize spoilage; and
  • How to fully utilize their food purchases. In other words, teach them to think like my husband, the chef, so they can make use of scraps and leftovers.

Step number 2: make it easy

Design and implement initiatives that make for fun, easy adoption:

  • Clarify date labeling so that perfectly good food isn’t perceived as bad. The USDA just requested that companies switch to “best if used by” language to give consumers more accurate guidance.
  • Suggest meals that enable moms to buy just what they need—and use it up. There’s a real business opportunity here: did you know that, as of 4 pm each day, 80% of mom’s don’t know what’s for dinner that night? Suggesting recipes that will be totally consumed will make her life easier!
  • Inspire composting (and discount composters)… their garden will thrive because of you! Or help make curbside composting possible like in Boulder, Seattle and San Francisco.
  • Be creative… people love to compete! Only 13.5% think that their household wastes more than their average neighbor. Help people understand that they may in fact be wasting way more food and money than their friends, family, and neighbors to motivate them to do something about it.

In the meantime, I will carry on, hopeful that while my daughter learns to clean her plate, an array of giant food companies and grocers will take up the mantle of tackling food waste on a massive scale.

Things You May Have Missed During the Election #1: Walmart, Trust and Sustainability

There’s been a lot of talk about “trust” in the media lately—and it wasn’t all coming from the Trump and Clinton camps. In case you missed it, Walmart announced its 2025 goals just a few days before the election, as part of what Walmart CEO Doug McMillon characterized as a “new era of trust and transparency for customers and communities”.jenny_helen_expert

I’m going to do us all a favor and not re-visit the politicians’ pleas for trust. But Walmart’s desire to become “the most trusted retailer” makes me simultaneously wary and hopeful.

My wariness comes from the fact that we’ve heard plenty of companies talk about trust—especially as it relates to how much trust their customers have in them. And it’s no surprise why: trust is a key driver in customer loyalty and therefore repeat shopping trips and sales. So my cynical self keeps tip-toeing in and setting off the “empty sales pitch alert”, as in: if you have to say you’re trustworthy, you’re probably not.

But, having spent the last five years working side-by-side with Walmart to help them reach their 2015 sustainability goals, I’m hopeful. We all learned a lot in the process of using science to set goals, track progress and actually deliver measurable results… and I’m confident that Walmart can be even more successful this round.

Which is good: many of the 2025 goals—like making more packaging recyclable, reducing harmful ingredients in food and improving working conditions of their employees—matter, a lot. And achieving these goals should engender trust in Walmart: these issues touch consumers directly, and are quickly becoming part of mainstream thinking shared by other retailers and food companies (see the Wall Street Journal’s recent Global Food Forum).

But there's another dimension to the 2025 goals that gives me even greater hope.

What Walmart—and other companies—are starting to realize is that other, less tangible issues also matter. Real leadership means addressing all the major sustainability issues of our time—then helping their customers to come along with them.

Take climate change, for example: past shopper surveys asking mothers to rank areas of “concern” for their families have probably seen food safety scoring much higher on the list than the climate. But if the question were rephrased to ask “are the direct impacts of climate change (like more frequent severe weather) a concern for you and your family?”, I’m willing to bet the survey results would be a lot closer.

That’s why it’s so exciting to see Walmart’s other 2025 goals, where they will strive to achieve:

  • 50% renewable energy to power their operations
  • 18% absolute emissions reduction in their operations
  • Zero waste to landfill
  • Zero net deforestation in key commodities, such as palm oil and beef
  • 100% recyclable packaging in private brands
  • 1 Gigaton emissions reduction across their supply chain

While all of these goals are both laudable and ambitious, this last one—eliminating 1 Gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions—is an industry game-changer.  That’s the equivalent of removing 211 million cars from our roads… and is greater than the annual amount of GHGs emitted by the country of Germany.

And the even better news: Walmart’s not alone. Recent commitments by other companies like General Mills, Kellogg and Pepsi, shows that setting ambitious, science-based climate targets is now officially a trend. Achieving goals like these won’t be immediately seen, felt or touched by their customers—yet these companies are choosing to tackle them anyway.

That’s true leadership.

That’s saying to all of us, “we’ve got the power, scale and leverage to change the world, and we’re going to do it.”

That’s the way to engender real trust.

What was Left Off the Menu at the WSJ Global Food Forum?

Many of us spend a considerable amount of time thinking about food – whether it’s deciding what’s for dinner or how healthy something is for our family. Given that I work on food sustainability and am married to a chef, I spend an even more extreme amount of time thinking about food.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal hosted the first annual Global Food Forum in New York City – more proof that food and agricultural issues are increasingly on the radar screens of many jenny_helen_expertexecutives, including those from Walmart, Campbell’s Soup, Panera, Perdue, Monsanto, and many more.

I was eager to attend the event and hear the discussions among some of the most powerful food companies out there. They covered many topics including food safety, “clean” labels, biotechnology, antibiotic use and the humane treatment of animals.

All important stuff—but given the prestige of the event, I’d like to bring up the elephant in the room (or more accurately the elephant not in the room): sustainability. The environmental impacts of agriculture were barely touched upon, and considering the corporate heavyweights who were in the room, this was a missed opportunity on a massive scale.

Why? Because across the entire food production supply chain, sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand. Consider just a few of the advantages offered by sustainable growing methods:

Increased efficiency and cost savings: Crops take up on average only 40 percent of the nutrients applied to them each growing season. The rest is susceptible to running off the field, and contributing to water and air pollution.

But optimizing fertilizer use—using just the right amount and avoiding over applying—can mean higher yields and lower input costs for farmers, while simultaneously reducing that pollution-causing runoff.

Improved supply chain resiliency: One of the biggest risks that businesses face in the coming decades is supply chain disruptions caused by climate change. Unpredictable weather events like flooding and drought can mean grain shortages or inventory losses.

A couple of years ago, thousands of jobs were lost when Cargill closed meat processing plants in Wisconsin and Texas because drought had reduced its cattle count. And, according to a UC Davis study, last year saw about 542,000 acres of California farmland being left fallow for lack of water. That's about 7 percent of the state's irrigated farmland—meaning thousands fewer farm laborers had work.

But sustainable growing methods can help mitigate these risks. By helping farmers become more resilient, businesses are also protecting themselves by ensuring a consistent, dependable supply of goods. This improved resiliency is something shareholders are increasingly aware of.

Improved customer trust: The ability to share where and how ingredients are grown helps meet consumer demand for transparency. Consumers are clearly becoming more educated, and to remain competitive businesses need to respond to this demand.

Given all this, what advice do I have for the organizers of next year’s WSJ event?

First off, include deforestation, which is responsible for nearly 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. In many tropical nations, it is more economical to cut down forests for farmland than to protect them.

In addition to taking on a massive carbon footprint, companies sourcing food from deforested land are likely exposing themselves to legal and ethical risks. Solutions exist, such as sourcing from large-scale zones that operate under an umbrella of sustainable practices, but companies need to be educated and informed about their options.

Second, shine a spotlight on corporate sustainability leaders helping make farmers more resilient and profitable, such as:

  • The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a diverse coalition of food companies, retailers, and nonprofits working to expand on-the-ground solutions to protect air and water quality, enhance soil health, and maintain high yields throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin.
  • Land O’Lakes’ SUSTAIN® platform, co-developed by EDF, which trains agricultural retailers in best practices for fertilizer efficiency and soil health. The ag retailers then bring this knowledge to the customers they serve. Kellogg Company, Campbell’s, and Smithfield Foods are all using SUSTAIN as a way to connect directly with growers in their sourcing regions.

Lastly, talk about food waste. Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. ends up in a landfill – the equivalent of $165 billion each year. The only way to truly address the environmental issues of our food system while feeding a growing global population is to reduce food waste, which translates into improved bottom lines for farmers, food companies, and customers.

So, yes: I spend a lot of time thinking about sustainable food. But sustainability is clearly where the food industry is going.

The WSJ Global Food Forum should be thinking about it too.

A new era of collaboration for sustainable agriculture

Companies have the opportunity to use their voice to draw attention to issues that matter to their business and to their customers.  Today, a handful did just that – by announcing their commitment to sustainable agriculture.Cornfield

Over the past several months, I’ve spent countless hours representing Environmental Defense Fund in a room with Cargill, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Monsanto, PepsiCo, The Nature Conservancy, Walmart, and World Wildlife Fund. This group makes up the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC) – a diverse coalition working to reduce the environmental impacts of commodity row crop production (i.e., corn, soy, wheat, etc.) throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

This isn’t just good news for the planet. Implementing on-the-ground solutions that reduce fertilizer pollution and improve soil health can also result in higher yields for farmers, reduced risk of supply chain disruptions for food companies and retailers, reduced air and water pollution, and improved transparency for consumers.

Why companies care about fertilizer and soil health

Farmers and food companies need fertilizer to grow their ingredients, but fertilizer in excess of the amount crops need can lead to water and air pollution and wasted money for farmers, who spend approximately half of their input costs on fertilizer.

Each year, fertilizer runoff contributes to an aquatic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – an area the size of Connecticut that so devoid of oxygen, marine life cannot survive. And excess nitrogen fertilizer can lead to nitrates contaminating drinking water and water supplies – posing serious health risks to infants in particular.

Three pilot states

That’s why, along with a council of scientific and agronomic advisors, the MRCC will work with growers to help improve and implement conservation activities across three pilot states that are responsible for 44 percent of the corn, soy, and wheat production in the U.S.: Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.

By vastly increasing the number of row crop acres enrolled in sustainability measures in these three states, farmers and companies can help protect food security and drinking water supplies, while improving efficiencies in their business operations.

The power of collaboration

Farmer organizations, environmental groups, food companies, state and local watershed organizations, and many others share these common goals – and much work is already underway.

That’s why the MRCC isn’t reinventing any wheels. It’s shining a spotlight on an important environmental issue that is often overlooked, while helping support and scale the various technical and regional sustainability efforts already in place.

When leading companies collaborate around a common goal, both business and the planet will thrive.

Conclusion

This work is hard and will take time, but I’m more hopeful than ever that one day my daughter won’t grow up to read about toxic algae blooms or dead zones in the news and I’ll know I had a small part to play in that.

 

Mothers and CEOs: Why Corporate Sustainability Reports Matter

Walmart has just released its report on Corporate Sustainability—the “Global Responsibility Report”.

Nicknamed the GRR, the joke around my office is that “GRR” sounds like a growl—GRRRR. But while its seventy-three dense pages might seem daunting, the GRR is anything but scary. In fact, from my perspective as both a mother and someone with unique access to the day-to-day workings of Walmart, I have to say that it’s a must-read.

Why? Because like all corporate sustainability reports, the GRR tells the story of how big business is—or is not—adjusting their operations to help the planet and its inhabitants.

And by inhabitants I mean you. And me. All of us.

Meet Super-Eco-Business-Mom When new mom JENNY AHLEN feeds her daughter, she may also be pondering this question: how do we feed a global population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050? That’s because Jenny is also EDF’s team lead for their partnership with Walmart, which gives her both a unique perspective and a unique power. She knows the stakes are high for the world her daughter will grow up in. But Jenny is in a position to do something about it. Thus, she spends her days working with the world’s largest retailer trying to figure out the best approach to “fertilizer optimization”: the science behind increasing yields while reducing the environmental impacts of crop production. How did Jenny arrive at this nexus of the nursery and contemporary eco-business?

To all the mothers of the world: like you, I want the best for my child. While there are many things we can’t control about our kids’ world, we do have power over things like what goes in and on their bodies, which toys can help them learn, and how to create a safe and loving environment for them to grow. Knowing what’s in these sustainability reports means knowing whether the stores and brands we choose every day are working with us, or making our job harder.

To all the C-suite executives: See above. Mothers everywhere are starting to demand both transparency and action around creating a healthier world for our kids. We are your customers, and we’re sending you a demand signal to make us happy.  Coincidentally, it can make your business more efficient, more profitable and more resilient—all things that your shareholders will love to hear. Believe me, you want to be able to issue a sustainability report that’s both real and robust.

So if the GRR is Walmart’s report card on global responsibility, how did they do? Read more

How helping a multi-billion dollar company (aka Walmart) is like raising a child

When it comes to Walmart meeting its greenhouse gas goal, parenting and sustainability have more in common than you think.

Notes from the Nursery/Eco-Business Nexus

I’m proud to say that Walmart just announced that they’ve not only hit but surpassed a goal that was, at the time, considered nothing short of audacious: to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 20 million metric tons (MMT) in just six years.

So why am I proud? Two reasons.

First, I’ve worked alongside them every step of the way. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been Walmart’s lead partner throughout this process, and as a Supply Chain specialist for EDF, I know first-hand the massive amount of research, measurement, innovation, collaboration and communication that has gone into bringing this goal across the finish line.

Second, I’m a brand new mother – and as I stare down into my 5-month-old daughter Helen’s eyes, there’s nothing I care more about than ensuring she grows up in a world that is on course to thrive—both economically and environmentally.  Walmart’s achievement gives me hope for both.Helen and Jenny

So, yes, I’m proud. Because while it may seem that my two unique perspectives—one from the nursery, one from inside the halls of the world’s largest retailer—are worlds apart, they actually have a lot in common. Read more

How Campbells is Helping to Make Sustainable Growing the New Normal

There’s a lot of momentum in the sustainable agriculture world. We helped Walmart discover that fertilizer runoff is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain, and they’re now working with suppliers to improve the way grain is grown across the U.S. That’s because half of all fertilizer applied to crops runs off the field, leading to water pollution, aquatic dead zones that kill marine life, and contributing to climate change – since the nitrogen in fertilizer runoff converts to nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Major food companies are also recognizing that increased weather variability from climate change can cause supply chain disruptions, that their customers are demanding transparency for how their food was grown, and that it’s in their best interest to meet retailers’ demands for sustainably grown grain.

Campbells

That’s why Campbell’s Soup has focused on growing its vegetables as sustainably as possible, and why its Pepperidge Farm subsidiary is now investing in wheat sustainability in their Ohio and Nebraska sourcing areas.

My colleague Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability at EDF, recently interviewed Dan Sonke, manager of agricultural sustainability at Campbell’s, to get his take on this unprecedented momentum. Below are the highlights of their conversation on why his company is working with farmers to reduce environmental impacts, what they’re hearing from customers, and about why sustainable grain is becoming the new normal. Read more

Gaining Momentum for Optimized Fertilizer Use in Agriculture

Jenny AhlenIn 2013, Walmart launched an initiative with the potential to optimize fertilizer use on 14 million acres of U.S. farmland by 2020. This was a great step in the right direction for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution by improving nitrogen fertilizer use. Momentum on this work grew in April when Walmart suppliers including Cargill and General Mills stepped up and made joint agricultural commitments at Walmart’s Sustainable Product Expo.

Now, a little over a year since this work kicked off, it’s great to see another major boost of momentum. On Monday, Walmart hosted their fall Milestone meeting, which included an announcement from United Suppliers to join the fertilizer optimization work – committing to enroll 10 million acres by 2020.

This is a big deal for two reasons. First, this commitment is significantly larger – more acres – than any other we’ve seen so far. Second, this is the first time a major agricultural retailer has joined this initiative.

Read more