Big Food’s Sleight of Hand


Photo: Kekstester

This week we introduce the Shift Dialogs, NewCo’s new video series featuring in-depth conversations with the leaders driving significant change across business, culture, and society. Our first episode features Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft. We’ve also released the second episode, featuring Max Ventilla, founder and CEO of AltSchool.

Today’s Top Stories

Big Food’s Sleight of Hand: A labeling change could make useful information harder for consumers to access.

What’s Missing From Patagonia’s Film About Sustainable Food? Mentions of GMOs, the most contentious issue in the field.

The Airbnb Effect: Three senators want to know what impact short-term rentals have on communities.

Trust, But Verify: How investors are understanding the Theranos implosion.

Challenging Giants: The top names in consumer packaged goods are under attack.

Big Food’s Sleight of Hand. Can you read QR codes without a smartphone? Nope, and 83% of those who do have smartphones have never read one either. But the Grocery Manufacturers Association (a trade group that represents Unilever, Nestlé, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and others) is pushing a GMO labeling bill that lets food manufacturers make information about things like genetic modification and food processing facilities available only via QR codes (Quartz). Nutrition Facts and allergy information would stay on the package. The trade group is positioning this as a packaging issue, but why even back a plan that creates the perception that you’re trying to hide something? The truth will out eventually. Getting in front of it is just smart business.

What’s Missing From Patagonia’s Film About Sustainable Food. One of the biggest divides in the sustainable food community is over GMOs: some welcome them, some fear them. Slate looks at Unbroken Ground, a recent film commissioned by Patagonia, the sustainable apparel company that has expanded into sustainable food, and zeroes in on the company’s opposition to GMOs, despite growing scientific consensus, as well as the film’s eschewing of the issue. The article maintains that the film and Patagonia’s public statements ignore “the fact that there’s a biotech solution to practically every food issue shown.” Its conclusion is hopeful–maybe Patagonia didn’t go deep into GMOs because it’s planning a pivot–but the piece inadvertently shows how far GMO advocates are going to have to go to prove to a resistant community that they’re beneficial.

The Airbnb Effect. Three Democratic senators want the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Airbnb (Recode) and other short-term rental enablers. In a letter to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) writes, “We are concerned that short-term rentals may be exacerbating housing shortages and driving up the cost of housing in our communities.” This builds on a recent report by the NY State attorney general that commercial property holders, not individual homeowners, are taking in a disproportionate percentage of Airbnb revenue. That suggests renters are getting displaced, and the senators say they want more information to determine whether any action is necessary. It’s a replay of recent battle in Airbnb’s home city of San Francisco, which has not played out well so far (Airbnb lost, and is suing the city to stop regulations from going into effect.)

Trust, But Verify (Theranos Edition). In a roundup of what lessons Silicon Valley investors might find in the fall of Theranos, The Wall Street Journal makes the usual stops–oversight, due diligence–and includes one vivid (if disputed) tale of how the blood-testing company resisted even minimal transparency. It also includes this statement from Theranos: “We are also preparing to introduce and explain our technologies to the scientific community.” Seems like something a company might have wanted to do–and investors might have wanted to demand–before a unicorn-level funding round.

Challenging Giants: Scale ain’t what it used to be. Large consumer packaged goods firms like Procter and Gamble are under attack: a recent report finds that large CPG companies in the U.S. are losing market share (Economist) to upstarts like KIND and Dollar Shave Club. This assault on the world’s biggest brands is leading the incumbents to do some rethinking, but mostly they’re pulling the usual levers, buying out competitors and cutting costs. This overview includes perhaps the most pungent (and–warning–profane) quote we’ve ever seen in The Economist: “As one executive admits in a moment of candour, ‘We’re kind of fucked.’”

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