The food & beverage industry already has responded with reformulations and changes in marketing tactics. But more is on the way – and the industry set a 2015 deadline for itself.
Last May, 16 food & beverage processors, who make up the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), pledged to introduce lower-calorie options, lower the calories of current products and reduce single-serve portion sizes, all in an effort to reduce the calories customers consume by 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.
The signatories were Bumble Bee Foods, Campbell Soup Co., Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Hershey, J.M. Smucker Co., Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Mars, McCormick & Co., Nestle USA, PepsiCo, Post Foods/Ralston Foods LLC, Sara Lee Corp. and Unilever USA.
New pressure also is coming from Washington. On Dec. 2, the House passed S. 3307, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, aka the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill, by a vote of 264-157 (the senate passed it unanimously in August). Some 31 million children participate in the subsidized school meal program, which is funded by the bill. The program includes school breakfasts, lunches, after-school meals and summer programs. The federal government gives schools $2.72 for a fully subsidized lunch.
The bill, primarily written by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who lost her bid for re-election, provides an additional $4.5 billion over 10 years -- the first time funding has been increased in 30 years. It provides more than 20 million additional after-school meals annually to children in all 50 states, and increases the number of children eligible for school meals programs by at least 115,000. The legislation increases the amount of money schools are reimbursed by 6 cents a meal -- but according to the School Nutrition Assn., the average school loses 35 cents on every lunch it serves.
Standards for foods and beverages sold will be created by the USDA, which has the authority to banish any foods (with the exception of those sold at fundraisers) that do not comply with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That will mean limits on fat, sugar and salt in cafeteria foods; vending machines will be stocked with less candy and fewer high-calorie drinks; and for the first time, free drinking water must be available where meals are served. Schools must also serve more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
And New York – both city and state – came close last summer to passing a penny-per-ounce tax on full-calorie sweetened beverages – whether the real motivator was childhood obesity or balancing budget shortfalls. The concept may not be dead in the Empire State, and several other states looked longingly at the potential revenue.
"One of the trends we saw in 2010 is the consolidation of food companies," says Manning. "Any company that was highly leveraged going into the year had a very hard time. They didn't have enough money to invest in R&D, so were ripe for picking for the stronger companies."
That's what happened to Pilgrim's Pride, the country's largest poultry processor: Brazilian meat processor JBS SA bought a 64 percent stake (recently increased to 67 percent) to help Pilgrim's Pride emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Grupo Bimbo SAB de CV is in the process of closing on the bakeries of Sara Lee Corp. And a Wall Street Journal report in December alleged JBS was angling to buy all of Sara Lee.
But it wasn't just highly leveraged companies. Cadbury PLC seemed solid, even after its 2007 split from Schweppes – but Kraft still swooped in for a $19.6 billion game-changing acquisition … which supplanted Mars and its 2008 purchase of Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. as the world's largest confectioner.
What it all comes down to is: borrowed money is still cheap, credit is more available and wheeling and dealing is back on.
The Food Institute, which annually tracks mergers & acquisitions, recorded 214 deals in 2009, down from 378 in 2008. Although it was too soon to count M&A's from 2010, lower interest rates and seemingly more solid economic footing, at least for some companies, set the stage for deals to increase.
"As we saw in the Food Processing Top 100, in 2009, sales were down, but profits were up," continues Manning. "The reason is that once the commodities spiked in 2007, companies reacted quickly to cut costs before the recession hit. As they went into the 2008-2009 recession, they benefited from these cost reductions."
Looking at 2011 from a financial standpoint, Manning adds, "Companies are getting stronger; there will be more consolidation of the ones that are not. With the credit market thawing, we are seeing more opportunities to buy other companies, so [mergers and acquisitions] will continue to be strong."
Rising food prices
"Swiftly rising input costs have put packaged food companies in a situation where margins are being squeezed," said Judi Rossetti, senior director at Fitch Inc., a New York- and London-based global ratings agency. "It will take time for price increases implemented by the food companies to catch up with the commodity cost inflation they are already incurring."
It certainly is taking time. A late-November report from USDA's Economic Research Service projects the consumer price index (CPI) for all food to increase 0.5-1.5 percent in 2010 — the lowest annual food inflation rate since 1992, says the agency. Food-at-home (grocery store) prices also were forecast to increase 0.5-1.5 percent, while food-away-from-home (restaurant) prices were predicted to rise 1-2 percent. The all-food CPI increased 1.8 percent between 2008 and 2009.
"Although inflation has been relatively weak for most of 2009 and 2010, higher food commodity and energy prices are now exerting pressure on wholesale and retail food prices," wrote ERS in the report. "Hence, food inflation is predicted to accelerate during the final months of 2010 and the first half of 2011, leading to a forecast of 2-3 percent food price inflation in 2011."