January 16, 2013

Natural Foodie: Online magazine in Portland tracks health food industry

Dan McGovern works in a growth industry.

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Dan McGovern

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This snapshot of the digital magazine sustainable Food News was taken on Jan. 11.

THIS JUST IN

RECENT HEADLINES from Sustainable Food News, sustainablefoodnews.com, include:

"Whole Foods film shows organic dairy farmers gambling on entrepreneurialism" -- Available on the retailer's website, the film "Betting the Farm" profiles Maine's Own Organic Milk and was produced and directed by Mainers Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann.

"Half of U.S. adults ate local, natural food at restaurants at least weekly in 2012" -- Research from food-service consulting firm Technomic finds consumers are increasingly health conscious and prefer dishes made with 100 percent whole wheat and containing fruits and vegetables.

"Organic trend to 'grow exponentially' in coming years, says PricewaterhouseCoopers" -- The research finds 46 percent of shoppers currently seek out organic and local food and that this number will continue to increase.

"Moms turning to bloggers, peers for food info -- not doctors, dietitians, says survey" -- Conducted by Fleishman-Hillard and TheMotherhood.com, the study also found 78 percent of moms read labels and 49 percent of moms plan to buy less processed food in 2013.

 

As the founder and editor of Sustainable Food News, McGovern, 44, is immersed in the expanding and fast-moving world of better-for-you-food.

Produced in Portland, the online business magazine publishes Monday through Friday and chronicles the health food industry's latest news and trends. The daily emails go out to 7,500 subscribers.

The magazine is geared toward retail and food service buyers, but its list of subscribers includes chefs, distributors, producers, nonprofits and regulators. A yearly subscription costs $299, with discounts available for bulk orders and company-wide subscriptions.

As more and more retailers add natural and organic foods to their product mix, McGovern said consumers of all ages are fueling the trend for more sustainable food.

Millenials, currently in their teens and 20s, tend to be much more food-conscious than previous generations and enjoy cooking, appreciate the connection between food and health, and value quality food. At the other end of the spectrum, Baby Boomers -- some of the original pioneers of the health food movement -- are returning to those whole-food roots as a way to fend off the maladies tied to aging.

According to the research and publishing firm LOHAS, or Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, the U.S. market for natural and organic food, dietary supplements and nutritional products currently clocks in at $117 billion.

"I don't see anything other than big growth," said McGovern, who defines sustainability as a business philosophy that encompasses the well-being of "people, planet and profits."

"Sustainability is a paradigm shifter, and it's absolutely one of the biggest issues of our times," said Nate Schlachter, executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Sustainable Food Trade Association, which works with organic food companies to increase the sustainability of their operations. "It's something that's unavoidable. It's not going away."

Schlachter added, "Sustainable Food News is a really great source for our work specifically."

McGovern founded the magazine in June 2006. Prior to the launch, McGovern had written about the food industry for years, working for publications including SeaFood Business Magazine (where he won a Neal Award, often called the Pulitzer of trade journalism) and Seafax.

"Sustainability kept cropping up," McGovern recalled. "It was affecting every category of food."

McGovern, who does the bulk of the magazine's writing, said he never struggles to find news. However, he said he has to be alert for attempts by companies to greenwash their products, or make them appear more eco-friendly and responsibly produced than they actually are.

"We're a daily news service, but we're also a watchdog," McGovern said, noting he's not shy about calling out overblown claims of sustainability.

As an example, he said the factory farm pork industry continues its use of gestation crates for pregnant sows, despite the rapidly growing list of restaurants and retailers who have said they will no longer buy pork produced under such conditions. He's talked to farmers and industry representatives who defend the practice as responsible farming, but McGovern doesn't buy their claims.

"Consumers are driving these changes and marketers and manufacturers need to listen," McGovern said.

One of the emerging trends McGovern sees affecting the industry is the proliferation of eco-labels, such as organic, certified humane and fair trade.

"The rise of eco-labels is a huge issue that companies and marketers need to understand better," McGovern said.

He recently wrote in the magazine about the more than 200 labels available to food producers willing to comply with varying levels of certification and fees. In the piece, McGovern said the sheer number of labels has the potential to confuse consumers.

"The other big trend is labeling of GMO (food)," McGovern said.

He said the Non-GMO Verified label is the fasting growing label in the U.S. and points out that the issue of labeling genetically-engineered food has spilled over into the political sphere. California voters narrowly defeated a GMO labeling referendum last fall, and voters in Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Vermont and Connecticut could all encounter similar ballot questions in the coming year.

Another challenge he sees for the industry is the continuing consolidation of brands. Conventional food companies are actively snapping up smaller brands that have built a loyal following in the natural foods marketplace.

McGovern said while the smaller companies are often focused on building a sustainable business that benefits workers, the environment and the bottom line, the big food companies (many of which are publicly traded) tend to put their emphasis on profits.

This can lead to situations such as Dean Foods quietly switching from using organic soybeans to conventional soybeans after it purchased Silk soy milk in 2002.

Or brands such as Kashi and Bear Naked, both of which are owned by Kellogg's, coming under fire for using genetically-modified ingredients.

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, these situations don't stay under wraps for long, McGovern said.

"Social media gives consumers great power and it also forces a food producer or manufacturer to be transparent," McGovern said. "Tell us what's in your products. Tell us what you're doing. (Because if you don't) everybody's going to find out about what you do anyway."

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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