New CSPI report investigates "clean label" foods, offers key recommendations

Slightly more than a third of Americans think “clean-label” products are free from artificial ingredients. About a third think it means organic or natural. And roughly a third of Americans don’t know what clean label means. For retailers, restaurants, and food manufacturers, that creates a challenging landscape – and one with few [1] defined guardrails.

Today, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a new report, Clean Labels: Public Relations or Public Health?, that assesses efforts by four restaurants – Chipotle Mexican Grill, Noodles & Company, Panera Bread, and Papa John’s – and nine grocers – Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant Food, Stop and Shop), Aldi, H-E-B, Kroger, Meijer, Supervalu, Target, Wakefern (ShopRite), and Whole Foods  – to deliver what they interpreted a “clean label” product to mean. The report is well worth the read.

EDF agrees with the CSPI report statement that, “[m]ost substances added to food—even ones with long chemical names—are safe… But some are not, and many have been poorly tested. Indeed, the system intended to ensure the safety of ingredients added to food is deeply flawed.”

We also agree with CSPI that, “To the extent that clean label products are healthier than their non-clean label counterparts, because they are made with actual foods instead of cheap chemical imitations, they deserve praise. Still, the absence of artificial ingredients does not make a food healthy, since it could still be loaded with saturated fat, salt, or added sugars and be largely devoid of dietary fiber and nutrients.” For EDF, clean labels also provide no assurance about other unknown and hazardous food additives such as those used in packaging like perchlorate or that enter food during manufacturing and processing like phthalates.

What should make the report of interest to all engaged in the business of food, from those making it to eating it, are the well-substantiated recommendations for addressing food ingredients in clean-label programs. The CSPI report defines and then assesses the suite of best-in-class clean label efforts by supermarkets and restaurants across three major components:  ingredients covered, food and beverage products covered, and transparency. In general, transparency efforts are strongest, coverage across products is weakest, with ingredient reformulation somewhere in the middle.

The report concludes with a trio of target recommendations and action steps, including:

  • Prioritize public health – Clean-label commitments should be accompanied by meaningful improvements to the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages sold.
  • Comprehensive policies – Lists of prohibited ingredients should apply to all products a restaurant makes or sells, including beverages, and supermarkets should expand clean label policies to all of their private-label brands.
  • Transparency – Restaurants should provide complete ingredient and nutrition information for all menu items, both on-site and on their website, and supermarkets should provide this information on their websites.

Given that natural is an artificial, and often erroneous, synonym for healthy, Clean Labels: Public Relations or Public Health? does just what CSPI intended – provides a useful assessment of clean label efforts that give direction and guidance to companies committed to improving the health and safety of the food they make and sell.

For companies seeking to improve their own food offerings, EDF+Business invites you to visit Behind the Label: A Blueprint for Safer Food Additives in the Marketplace. This online resource details best practices for the five pillars of leadership, offers a model policy and case example, as well as tracking corporate efforts in this space.

[1] “Certified organic” is a federally defined and regulated status.

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.

How can your company detox in 2017? EDF’s new tools for safer chemicals in products

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Becoming a leader on safer chemicals is a meaningful way to address increasing consumer demand for ingredient transparency and safer products. The good news: taking the first step is easy to do.

In these uncertain times, corporate leadership is more important than ever in maintaining momentum to address our most serious environmental challenges – from climate change to water depletion to exposure to hazardous chemicals. Recently, I participated in the 11th annual BizNGO Conference titled “Measuring Progress to Safer Chemicals.” The event was full of solutions-oriented dialogue among NGOs, investment firms, and leading consumer product companies – in textiles, personal care, health care, electronics, cleaning, and more – about topics from meaningful transparency to measuring the ubiquity of chemicals of concern. Overall, the conference renewed my belief that companies are ready and willing to accelerate the adoption of safer chemicals in the marketplace. For example, now over 60 organizations, including Staples and CVS Health, have signed on to the Chemical Footprint Project, which recognizes companies that have effectively demonstrated public commitment to improved chemicals management. Elsewhere, some companies are publicly showing success at reducing the use of chemicals of concern.

Although leading companies are paving the way, it is clear that we need more companies, especially more retailers, to achieve full marketplace transformation. Companies that are interested – but uncertain of where to start – should explore building a chemicals policy.

A written corporate chemicals policy is the most effective tool in jump-starting and sustaining Institutional Commitment for safer chemicals. It helps a company articulate its chemical management goals and set a course for success. A strong chemicals policy begins with an overarching aspirational vision that conveys the company’s desire to take a leadership stance. The company’s specific objectives for attaining leadership on safer chemicals are the meat of a chemicals policy. At a minimum, these objectives should focus on:

  • Improving Supply Chain Transparency
  • Cultivating Informed Consumers
  • Embedding safer Product Design, and
  • Showing Public Commitment

What are the benefits of writing all of this down? Goal embedment and alignment, employee empowerment, and sparking accountability internally and within the company’s supply chain – to name a few.

But what does all of this really look like on paper? EDF has created templates retailers can use when fleshing out their own chemicals policy. Our templates provide starting text as well as tips and resources for customization.

Consumers are looking to companies to lead the way — publicly and credibly. Use our templates to help you build a chemicals policy that gives you a competitive edge and builds consumer trust.