Poor chili harvest in Mexico leads to Sriracha shortage

Drought made the spring harvest of chili peppers in northern Mexico dismal at best. This in turn has led to a shortage of Sriracha throughout the United States and everywhere it is exported.

Many people think Sriracha is imported into the United States, but it’s actually a Southern California company that makes the spicy sauce. David Tran started Huy Fong Foods in Irwindale in 1980. Chinese by birth, Tran immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam.

A few bottles of Sriracha sit on the shelf at El Sol Dos market in Todos Santos on June 23. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“Sriracha is actually made from a very special type of pepper that only grows in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico,” Murray Tortarolo with National Autonomous University of Mexico, told NPR.

The company has not disclosed exactly where in Mexico it is sourcing the chilies, but said it is hoping the fall harvest will be more successful.

“We have several sources sometimes and we don’t want them to know who each other are,” Donna Lam, executive operations officer for the company, told the Los Angeles Times.

Huy Fong Foods uses about 100 million pounds of chilies a year.

Prior to a 2017 lawsuit with Underwood Farms all of Huy Fong Foods’ chilies came from the Ventura County outfit. Since then chilies have come from Mexico, New Mexico and California. Today, Mexico is the sole provider.

This spring the company sent an email to customers stating, “Currently, due to weather conditions affecting the quality of chili peppers, we now face a more severe shortage of chili. Unfortunately, this is out of our control and without this essential ingredient, we are unable to produce any of our products.”

The bottle with the rooster and distinct green cap is a favorite in cuisine of all kinds. Sriracha is super popular in Vietnamese food. Often a bottle of it is on the table at Vietnamese restaurants much like ketchup is at a burger place.

Marketing research company IBISWorld said in 2019 Huy Fong Foods controlled nearly 10 percent of the U.S. hot sauce market. At that time the hot sauce was a $1.55 billion market.

However, according to NPR, “The original Sriracha is actually Thai—and comes from the seaside city of Si Racha, where most residents haven’t even heard of the U.S. brand, which is now being exported to Thailand.”

Drinking beer to help the people of Ukraine

Alcohol is often the drug of choice to numb oneself to the realities of life and war. But what if buying a beer or two could do something more, something good for others?

Breweries throughout the world are being asked to brew RESIST—a Ukrainian anti-imperial stout. So far only two breweries in California are doing so, with one being Secret Trail Brewing in Chico.

Cans at Secret Trail’s RESIST are being sold for $15 each. Remember, this is a fundraiser. The beer is good, really good. The money is going toward the Red Cross humanitarian relief effort.

The recipe is online as are other ways to help people in Ukraine who are trying to survive while their country is being shelled and destroyed by the Russian military for reasons only dictator Putin knows. The recipe was created by brewers in Ukraine.

The Drinkers for Ukraine website says, “We’re not being prescriptive when it comes to the beer’s packaging and label design, all we’re asking is that brewers use the name, and Ukraine’s national colours. For the rest, use your creativity.”

Secret Trail’s can has a map of Ukraine in blue and yellow, with RESIST in yellow.

The Chico label says, “We brewed this Imperial Stout for the people and the brewers in Ukraine. Brewers in Ukraine have seen their livelihoods wiped out, and in some instances their businesses destroyed by Russian strikes. It is a collaborative effort amongst breweries worldwide to show our support for the brewers, and all the people of Ukraine, and large portion of the proceeds will go to the Red Cross Humanitarian Relief Fund. As you enjoy this rich wonderful beer, know that you are doing good for those in need.”

Chico institution more than a knife sharpening business

In business for more than 100 years, it took a pandemic for Fanno’s Cutlery to have its best year.

With restaurants closed or not able to have customers dine in, people were at home cooking more than usual. This is when they realized their knives were dull, as were their landscaping tools. After all, gardening became a pandemic pastime as well.

Fanno’s is who people took their blunt blades to.

“Saw business was good the last two years. The pandemic forced people to stay home so they did landscaping,” owner Robb Fanno said. “The tree saw was our core business. Some of our dealers were up 300 percent.”

Inventors and builders

It was Fanno’s grandfather, Asa, who started the Chico company and revolutionized the agriculture saw business. He had an almond orchard, which until his invention of the pole saw, required climbing into the tree with a saw to prune it. This was dangerous work.

The Fanno curved pole saw was the first of its kind. The tooth design and the blade’s curved edge are what made it unique. The apparatus allowed for a safe way to prune those hard to reach branches. The operator could do the work standing on the ground—not in the tree or on a ladder.

From there a folding saw was developed, as were countless other saws. It’s assumed by those who know a thing or two about these tools what someone means when they say they own a Fanno without ever mentioning the word saw.

Being inventors also meant developing the machinery to make the end product.

“A lot of the equipment in the 1960s and 1970s we made ourselves because nothing was out there,” Fanno said. “If it stopped working, we upgraded it ourselves.”

All of this creativity was done at the West Eighth Avenue shop where the business first opened in 1920 and where it continues to operate.

Robb Fanno sharpens a knife at his Chico shop. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Making changes

What’s different today, though, is that Fanno saws are no longer being made in Chico.

In spring 2021, Fanno sold the saw business to Superior Fruit Equipment of Washington. That company had been a distributor of Fanno’s saws for more than a quarter century, so the two knew each other well. This was important to Fanno. He only wanted someone to take over the family saw business that he could trust to respect the quality of product he and his ancestors had made for years.

Included in the sale was much of the equipment used to the saw making business.

“We had a long history of innovation in our tools, but it was based on technology from the 1930s and ‘40s. To be competitive in today’s technological environment is tough,” Fanno said. “It was the appropriate time to let it go.”

Now the back room is somewhat empty and in a bit of disarray. Fanno is in the process of going through what’s left, acknowledging some of the equipment has outlived its usefulness.

“There’s a machine in back that weighs 12 tons and has no value. It was used to blank out the saw blades. It’s equipment that has been outdated,” Fanno said. Its future is likely to become scrap metal.

Keeping tools sharp

Without saws to build, Fanno is focused on sharpening and sales.

The sharpening side of the business came into being after selling so many saws. Eventually, they lost their luster. Saws, loppers, pruning shears—they all need to be sharpened from time to time in order to be effective.

“We service the tools they use. They rely on us and we rely on them,” Fanno said of the agriculture community.

For years sharpening tools was more of a side business. But it kept growing even without advertising.

The other thing that set Fanno’s apart is no one else had the experience to sharpen and recondition tools. “That was left up to us to fill that niche,” Fanno said. “We contracted out some of the specialized or heavier stuff.”

In the back of the building is a standing abrasive belt grinder where Fanno does his sharpening. Nearby is a bench grinder. Carefully, he runs the blade on the belt to get it ready to be used again. A buffer helps finish the process. He tests the short blade in a block of wood; it goes in almost like butter, proving it is more than ready to tackle vegetables or meat.

Besides home cooks and those in the ag business, non-professional landscapers also rely on Fanno’s. Once a year, for free, he leads a workshop for the Butte County Master Gardeners.

“I think as a gardener it’s important to be educated about tools and tool care,” said Kay Perkins who runs the education committee for the BCMG. “He is entertaining and helps people make good decisions about tools.”

These sessions are usually in December and are open to the public. Often they are announced on the master gardeners’ website or Facebook page. Sign up fast when the class rolls around again because space is limited, with a waiting list the norm.

“He says to look for this kind of steel, this kind of ratchet. He doesn’t try to sell his tools. He tells people what to look for whether it’s his or another brand,” Perkins said. “He talks about the kind of edge to look for and explains why.” He also talks about design, handles and all the other parts of a tool.

The master gardeners recommend getting tools sharpened at the end of the year so they will be ready to be put to use for pruning in January and February.

Fanno admits not everything people want to resurrect should be. Sentimentality, though, for a family heirloom or a favorite knife have people leaving them to be sharpened when buying something new might be more logical.

“We try to accommodate people. We take it as a challenge at times,” Fanno said of mandolin blades, old can openers, and well used hunting knives. “You have to be somewhat diplomatic with what they have.”

More than knives are sharpened at Fanno’s. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Retail sales

Selling knives and agriculture tools wasn’t a serious part of the business until the early 1980s. As Fanno tells it, people would ask about products either for themselves or as a gift. Recommendations kept being made. Finally, he realized it would be more profitable to stock items for sale instead of sending people elsewhere.

“We wanted to bring in quality stuff. There was too much of the less quality merchandise available,” Fanno explained.

Kitchen tools and some sporting cutlery are the main focus. There was a phase about 15 years ago when customized collectables were popular.

Value is important. It’s not about carrying the priciest knives; it’s about selling a quality product.

“We watch the trends. I’m looking at a couple lines we might move in,” Fanno said without revealing what those might be.

Three brands of cutlery—Victorinox, Miyabi and Wüsthof—are for sale at Fanno’s. An array of lines of each are available. It’s possible to buy individual knives or complete sets.

“There are a lot of cheap knives out there that I can get, but I want to offer people a product I would use myself,” Fanno said.

If someone could only own one kitchen knife, Fanno says it should be a paring knife or an 8-inch chef’s knife. The combo would be perfect, especially if it were possible to include a bread knife to make it a trio, he said.

In addition to all the culinary knives, there are kitchen shears. Then there are the loppers and smaller pruning tools.

Fanno’s eyes light up when he walks around the store talking about all the inventory. He’s a wealth of knowledge, explaining why the grip is important, how the shape of the blade will allow for various limbs to be trimmed.

He even sells tools so people can sharpen their own blades.


Looking forward


Fanno is the third generation to run the Chico store that was started by his grandfather, Asa—better known as A.A. The youngest Fanno came on board in the early 1970s and has been at the helm ever since. Carl Fanno bought the business in 1949 from his father and ran it until his death in 1976.

With no heirs, the family lineage will end with the 72-year-old. He’s not quite ready to retire, but also doesn’t anticipate working forever. Whether a buyer might come forward remains to be seen, and it would have to be an individual or company who Fanno would trust taking over what remains of his family’s heritage. After all, it’s not just a business, it’s his name that is on saws, the sign, and is a signature of perceived and actual quality.

The company’s longevity helped bring in new clientele during the pandemic, while longtime customers continued and renewed their relationship with the shop.

“It’s hard to find someone to offer quality service. It’s one reason we are still here. There is the trust factor. I think people value someone who is business that long, that you must be doing something right,” Fanno said. “People want that relationship, but we don’t have that as a rule in merchandising and retail.”

Even with Chico evolving into a city of more than 100,000 people, it is still a small town in some regards. Fanno and his shop are evidence of that truth, and that customer service is still relevant.

“I went looking for a certain type of knife and headed toward a more expensive one. (Robb) guided me toward one that was more affordable and I use it all the time. It’s the perfect size for everything I do in the kitchen,” explained Laura Lukes of Chico.

Fanno refuses to upsell people into something they don’t need. But he also isn’t going to carry cheap merchandise.

“I remember watching my dad when customers would come in. He was very gregarious,” Fanno said. It’s a trait he knows is important to this day.

As a one-man shop, it can get hectic at times. Fanno now parcels out some of the sharpening work to a former employee whose business is Richard Moeller Sharpening Service. Fanno’s wife, Linda, helps out with some of the paperwork.

Kitchen knives of all sizes sit in a multitude of cardboard boxes waiting for their owners to pick them up. The teeth of chain saw chains have been sharpened to the point they can split most any wood. They are stored in bags. It’s a system that works for Fanno even though to the untrained eye it looks a bit chaotic.

“My vision is to stay here as long as I can with the cutlery and sharpening business,” Fanno said.


  • Location: 224 W. Eighth Ave., Chico
  • Phone: 530.895.1763
  • Email: raf@sunset.net

Note: A version of this story first appeared in Edible Shasta Butte magazine.

Food waste a growing problem throughout the world

In a world where so many people go hungry every night how is it possible so much food is wasted?

Likely, there are many answers to that question. Perhaps the hungry people aren’t living near the wasteful people. Though, I have a hard time believing that since both seem to exist everywhere.

These are global problems—hunger and waste.

“While the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food every year, the United States discards more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons—80 billion pounds—every year,” according to Recycle Track Systems. “That’s estimated to be 30-40 percent of the entire U.S. food supply, and equates to 219 pounds of waste per person. That’s like every person in America throwing more than 650 average-sized apples right into the garbage — or rather right into landfills, as most discarded food ends up there. In fact, food is the single largest component taking up space inside U.S. landfills, making up 22 percent of municipal solid waste.”

Food waste is so bad that this April is the inaugural Nevada Food Waste Awareness Month.

“Food waste is the largest source of household waste that makes its way into Nevada’s landfills,” Daren Winkelman, chief of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Sustainable Materials Management, said in a press release. “Food waste impacts more than just your wallet; the methane released by rotting food contributes to harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Taking simple steps to reduce food waste can add up to big improvements for our environment and maintain Nevada’s leadership in creating clean, healthy, and vibrant communities.”

Nevada says the benefits of curtailing food waste include:

  • Saving money: By limiting the amount of food that gets thrown away, your family can save thousands of dollars a year.
  • Supporting the hungry: If you have extra food at home, consider donating it to a local food bank or shelter to support families and children experiencing food insecurity.
  • Conserving resources: Keeping food out of landfills helps lower greenhouse gas pollution, and composting food scraps can help make healthy soil for your garden.

I’m pretty good about not wasting food. I often shop with distinct meals in mind. Veggies that are starting to go bad get cooked and the put in the freezer. Fruit can be frozen to be used for smoothies on another day.

I’d like to think if we curtailed food waste at home, it would mean grocery stores would have more. The good thing about transferring the burden is that many stores already donate to local charities. Perhaps I’m being a bit idealistic, but we need to start someplace, one household at a time can make a difference.

Author: Agriculture in the United States is an unhealthy industry

Missing in so many monumental discussions is the health of the food supply. Not just in the United States, but other countries as well.

Food journalist Mark Bittman this year released his book Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. While I have not read it (yet), I listened to him talk about various components of the book in a podcast released by Aspen Ideas in November. The book is now on my “to read” list.

Bittman paints a clear picture of the importance of responsible agriculture, and how our federal government is failing to take this endeavor seriously. When food subsidies continue for big ag, clearly something is wrong.

The global pandemic proved how the supply chain is broken in so many regards. Farmers were plowing under perfectly good product because suddenly there was no way to get it to the people who needed and wanted it.

Bittman says 60% of the food available is junk—processed food. This includes grocery store shelves and in fast food restaurants.

While he praises those who support local/regional ag, farmers’ markets, and community supported agriculture, more needs to done on a larger level to have a significant impact.

The consequences of not changing our agricultural processes will continue to impact the land negatively, to make people ill, and to contribute to climate change.

While the information in the podcast is sobering, it is also hopeful in that change is possible. One of the things he would like any president to do is to forbid the use of antibiotics in animals unless for health reasons.

I can wait to read what else Bittman has to say.

N. California woman credited with evolution of canned olives

Freda Ehmann’s legacy is rooted in Oroville’s olive industry. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While Freda Ehmann was not the first to pickle olives, she is considered the mother of the canned olive industry.

The widow started Ehmann Olive Company in 1898 with 20 acres in Oakland, and turned it into a multimillion dollar company when she was in her 50s. Ehmann olives were distributed nationally by 1904, and in 1922 she had 700 acres of trees in the Oroville area.

The German native revolutionized the pickling process, which in turn made canned olives readily accessible to the masses. Until then, most olives in California were turned into oil.

Her curing process ensured all of the olives were black, like one finds today in a can of olives, instead of the green or brown color that was the norm at the time.

The original Ehmann olive label was red, yellow and black, the same as the German flag. She had come the United States as a teenager with her mother in 1852.

Her home that was built in 1911 in Oroville is available for tours, and is now the site of Butte County Historical Society. It was constructed by her son, Edwin, in the Craftsman bungalow style. (Edwin became mayor of Oroville in the 1920s.)

One of the nice things about this museum is people can actually sit on the furniture and touch items. A lot of this has to do with most of the furniture being period pieces, as opposed to her original belonging. One thing that did belong to Ehmann that is upstairs is her writing desk. It’s tiny, as was she.

The stained glass is also original. Ehmann had an extensive beer stein collection, a symbol of her roots.

Tours are available of the old Ehmann home in Oroville. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

By 1925 the Ehmanns were out of the olive business and the house had been sold.

A nationwide botulism outbreak in 1919 was traced to the Ehmann Olive Company, though others were implicated as well in the deadly spread.

According to Food Safety News, “USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry did a study of Ehmann’s glass and metal containers in 1920, finding both could look normal but still contain pathogenic organisms, including Clostridium botulinus. The California State Board of Health responded to the 1919 outbreak with emergency regulation of olive production on Aug. 7, 1920, requiring sanitation through the processing facility and mandating a thermal process. California responded with the Cannery Inspection Act of 1925.”

That same website goes on to say, “Judith Taylor, who wrote the book The Olive in California, interviewed Freda Ehmann’s granddaughter who said her grandmother never could come to terms about the company’s role in the 1919 outbreak.”

The Ehmann Olive Company was bought by the Mt. Ida Packing Company in 1925. In 1970, it became Olive Products Company, a division of Beatrice. According to the historical society, the company was then acquired by DaLallo Company, which produces Ehmann Olives that are sold through the Butte County Historical Society. Today, Lodestar Farms, which bottles olive oil, traces its roots to the Ehmann olive trees.

The Ehmann estate is a museum as well as headquarters of the Butte County Historical Society. (Image: Kathryn Reed)



  • The Ehmann home is open Saturdays from 11am-3pm.
  • For more info, call 530.533.5316.
  • The house is located at 1480 Lincoln Ave, Oroville.


Craft distillery using North State rice for much of its booze

I don’t think of myself as being “that person.” You know, the one who buys a bottle of something because of the label and nothing more.

In this case, the label did draw me in, but the contents also swayed me. And the fact that mom liked it, too, well, all the more reason to have a bottle of whiskey in the house.

This is no ordinary whiskey. It’s made by Golden Beaver Distillery in Chico. The Honey Run Whiskey earned a gold medal for honey-flavored whiskey at the 2021 Honey Spirits Competition.

From the tasting room the inner workings of Golden Beaver Distillery can be seen. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The back label says, “In 2018 the Camp Fire, the largest and most devastating wildfire in California history, took 86 lives and Butte County icon—the Honey Run Covered Bridge. We honor those lost and the historic bridge with this local, handcrafted spirit. The American craft whiskey starts a straight bourbon with a 21 percent rye mash bill. We then add all-natural raw Northern California Wildflower honey from the Chico Honey Company to a hint of sweetness. Enjoy straight on ice or in your favorite cocktail.”

The front label is of the bridge when it was intact.

All of the labels at Golden Beaver are a work of art, so that’s why I couldn’t just pick a bottle based on what it looked like. The names have a local bent as well, like Chico Creek Rye and Butte Creek Burbon.

The website explains the name of the distillery. “Golden Beavers once filled the rivers, streams, and wetlands of Northern California until the 1840s when overtrapping led to their extinction. The beavers demise affected the annual Pacific salmon runs and reduced the creation of wetlands used by migratory waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway. With each bottle sold, the Golden Beaver Distillery will donate a portion of the proceeds to restore beaver habitat across the Sierra Nevada and the Western United States.”

Each bottle is like a work of art. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Today, people can hop on one of the tractor seats at the bar for a tasting or order a specialty cocktail. While free tours are possible if an employee has time, the backdrop at the bar is of the operation. Just sitting there is impressive; as was listening to all the information bartender Miguel had to dispense.

Immediately on the other side of the glass is the mechanism called the Tennessee Thumper, the moonshine still. Mason jars are hooked up to the contraption. Infused moonshines keep being concocted.

Fortunately, on this particular Friday afternoon the three of us were able to get a tour by Andrew.

All of the grains—rice, corn, wheat, rye and barley—come from California. Local rice grower Lundberg supplies a sushi rice that is used in the moonshine. Some of the honey is from Orland. Chico’s Eckert Malting provides the malted rice.

Stainless steel and copper machines fill the warehouse. An automated bottling machine was recently added, which allows for 500 bottles to be processed in an hour.

Owner Kris Koenig started distilling spirits at the facility near the airport in August 2020, while the grand opening of the site was in December last year. In short order the distillery has been racking up awards. It was named the California Moonshine Distillery of the Year at the 2021 New York International Spirits Competition, and the Beaver Likker Moonshine earned platinum at the 2021 Ascot Awards.

Andrew leads a tour of the Chico distillery. (Image: Kathryn Reed)



  • Tastings are $12 a person, with the fee waived with the purchase of a bottle.
  • Email: info@GoldenBeaverDistillery.com
  • Phone: 530.321.7827
  • Address: 13464 Browns Valley Drive, Chico

Baja wine country fighting to retain its rural character

Many wineries offer outstanding views of the Valle de Guadalupe. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Those who live and work in the Valle de Guadalupe are fighting to protect their land, their way of life and the future.

On Oct. 9, more than 300 people connected to this wine region in Baja California marched in the streets to protest the building of a concert venue that would be able to hold 25,000 people.

The nonprofit Por un Valle de Verdad (For a Valley of Truth) organized the event.

While the region is a tourist destination mostly for Mexicans and those from the United States, the people who call it home don’t want it to be totally transformed into something that is not sustainable or that does not complement the rural nature of the land.

This was posted on the group’s Facebook page that day, “On the basis of public complaints, the federal authorities inspected and closed down a site where a forum for mass concerts is intended to be installed. It was also determined that the predio is located in a forest land that was affected by the removal of its natural vegetation (thicket or Chaparral) characteristic of semi-arid areas. According to INEGI, Chaparral’s vegetation covers part of the yard, and according to inspection, vegetation covers almost the entirety of the prediction. As a result, and because the inspector did not submit authorization for land use change in forest land, the federal authority closed the predio and secured the machinery.”

On Oct. 11, the group posted this on Facebook, “We demand that the Citizen’s Commission be established where villagers, academy and productive sectors of the Guadalupe Valley are represented to monitor the implementation of the regulation of the sectoral program.”

The valley is home to about 9,000 people. Some of the their complaints are not having the basic needs to deal with such a large venue—adequate roads, garbage, fire-police, medical care.

Then there are all the environmental concerns like the lack of water, the need to rezone land for the new use, destruction of land for construction, and the negative impacts concert after concert could have on the area.

This region just 90 minutes south of the U.S. border continues to grow in popularity. That is a reason to build the event center.

For those in the know, Mexico is already a player in the world of wine. Many of the wineries and wines will have people thinking they are in Napa or Sonoma counties in California, not in a Third World country. After all, bottles of Bruma can be found on the wine list at the French Laundry.

Even grocery store mushrooms are magical

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a mushroom I didn’t like.

They rank up there as one of my favorite “vegetables”. I put quotes around vegetables because mushrooms are really part of the fungi world, though many put them in the vegetable category at least in a grocery store.

A variety of mushrooms can be found in the wild, but only eat them if you know what you are doing. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.

Mushrooms are so incredibly versatile. With so many varieties, they can be used in a multitude of ways. They are good by themselves, as an entrée, side dish, a small part of a bigger dish, in soups, as a pizza topping, you name it.

Not only are they tasty, but they are good for you. They are high in protein, have vitamins B and C, calcium, potassium and zinc.

They are such a wonderful specimen that Oct. 15 has been deemed National Mushroom Day. After all, there are more than 10,000 known types of mushrooms in the world.

According to GroCycle, the most popular mushrooms are: button, cremini, Portobello, oyster, and king oyster. This is probably because these are what most people see in their grocery store.

I don’t know when my infatuation with mushrooms began. Sometime as an adult, as a vegetarian. I’m guessing my mom has eaten more mushrooms in the last seven months than she might have had in the last decade. Hopefully, she grows to love them like I do.

I realize not all mushrooms are edible. In fact, some are deadly if consumed.

But there are some that are easy to pluck from the ground if you know where to look. While California still smolders from fires started this summer, this could be a good thing for those who like morel mushrooms. They are often found in areas that have recently burned. At least I found this to be true in Tahoe. I’m hoping to see next spring if any sprout up near areas that burned in the Dixie Fire.

Grocery Stores Accommodating Growing Vegetarian/Vegan Market

Vegetarian burgers are co-mingled with animal burgers in a freezer section at Costco. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

No longer is it like a scavenger hunt to find vegetarian and vegan foods in a grocery store. While that is good news for the producers and consumers of these products, the traditional meat and dairy industries are less than thrilled with this reality.

Industry experts say the change is driven by two main factors. One is people wanting alternatives to animal products for health and environmental reasons. The other driving force is greater variety of non-meat choices, with flavors and textures often mimicking animal products.

“Our most recent data that covered the 2020 grocery year shows plant based food sales were up another 27 percent. That has been the way it has been year-over-year for the last six or seven years with tremendous double digit growth,” said Michael Robbins, who handles policy for the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA). “It’s outpacing all other sectors of the grocery store.”

PBFA reports that in 2020 plant-based yogurt grew 20%, almost seven times the rate of conventional yogurt; plant-based cheese grew 42%, almost twice the rate of conventional cheese; and plant-based eggs grew 168%, almost 10 times the rate of conventional eggs. The plant-based egg category grew more than 700% from 2018, 100 times the rate of conventional eggs.

Businesses are feeling the effects of this cultural shift. For the makers of vegan and vegetarian foods, they see a bright future. For area dairy farmers, they are facing the reality things are changing.

Amy’s has been a leader in the vegetarian/vegan world, and now has drive-through restaurants. The company plans to add 25-30 locations throughout the West Coast in the next five years. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Companies providing alternatives 

            Plant-based food manufacturers are constantly trying to grab a larger share of the market by creating new products and improving on what is currently on the market.

Petaluma headquartered Amy’s Kitchen is a leader in this industry, having been around since 1988.

“We never could have predicted that one-day vegetarian and vegan would become mainstream and on track to surpass animal protein alternatives someday,” Andy Berliner, Amy’s co-founder and CEO, said. “Consumers are more educated about food choices and the impact diet has on their health and the health of our planet. They’re seeing the data that a plant-based diet can improve personal and planet health. Now our biggest challenge is keeping up with the demand.”

He said demand for Amy’s products “surged 100% in 2020.” Berliner attributes this to people stockpiling during the pandemic and wanting to eat healthier. Revenues in 2020 were about $600 million.

“We expect a record year in 2022 because of investments we’ve made in more production facilities—new locations in San Jose and Goshen (in Tulare County)—and people,” Berliner said.

One thing the company isn’t trying to do is mimic or replicate the meat-eating experience.

“Amy’s is unique in that everything is made from whole, organic ingredients and cooked in real kitchens much the way you would at home with a lot of love,” Berliner said.

The company has 136 products on the market, and in a normal year launches six to 12 new items.

Wildbrine and WildCreamery in Santa Rosa are also always looking at new products to bring to market, just not as many as Amy’s. The 10-year-old company just released an oat butter and soon will have a quinoa based sour cream.

“We have made cultures for plant based items that are derived from the same byproducts by fermenting plants,” co-owner Chris Glab said.

Glad said in the United States in the 12 months ending Jan. 24, 2021, compared to the previous 12 months:

  • Plant-based cream cheese grew 2.3 times faster than traditional dairy cream cheese (45.1% vs 19.7%)
  • Plant-based sour cream grew 3.8 times faster than traditional dairy sour cream (53.8% vs 14.8%)
  • Plant-based butter grew 6.6 times faster than traditional dairy butter (133.3% vs 20.3%).

While Renegade Foods has only had plant-based products on the market since 2020, research and design was a decade-long process. The company is headquartered in Berkeley, with production taking place in Petaluma.

The company produces non-meat salami. It’s all plant-based, with no intention of using cell-created meat.

“Renegade is tailored to the flexitarian; the consumer who is looking to consume less meat,” Kalie Marder, the company’s co-owner, said. “We have the same mouth feel and flavors of the meat analogue.”

The pandemic forced owners to shift to online sales. Today retail is about 30% of the business, with growth in that area expected to increase.

Marder would not reveal what future products will be, but said to expect something from Renegade in 2022 that could be found in the deli section.

“I think it’s important to showcase plant-based options to an audience who may not be seeking them,” Marder said. “We are mission driven, to effect change. One way to normalize vegan food is to put it in the grocery store where you will find its animal counterpart. Consumers need to be presented with a meat-free option that still meets their expectations.”

The dairy industry lost a fight about what words could be used by the vegan/vegetarian food producers. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The dairy struggle

As one food segment grows, it often means another is declining. That is what dairy farmers are worried about—losing market share.

The number of dairy farmers is on the decline. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, “Since 2003, the U.S. has lost more than half of its licensed dairy operations, now just shy of 32,000 dairy operations.”

Even so, the agency reports milk production in the U.S. in 2020 was 223 billion pounds, an increase of just more than 2% from 2019. Butter production increased in 2020 with so many people at home baking during the pandemic.

Some North Bay dairy farmers backed the lawsuit the California Department of Food and Agriculture filed against Miyoko’s Creamery of Petaluma. Miyoko’s won that fight in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in August, thus allowing it to use dairy-centric phrases in its advertising.

“Any time there is a shift in technology or industry, there will be a battle between the old way and the new. However, dairy farmers, too, are waking up to the truth behind some of their woes—consolidation. It wasn’t the plant-based industry or veganism that put over 30 farmers out of business in the Northeast, it was Danone consolidating,” Miyoko Schinner, owner of the creamery, said. “My hope is that we can convince farmers that participating in a compassionate future of food will allow them to stay connected to the land and even evolve the relationship they have with their cows.”

Scott Dicker, marketing analyst for the wellness-focused data company SPINS, believes consumers wanting more plant-based foods is having a ripple effect.

“It is causing the meat and dairy industries to be more cognizant so they are claiming more sustainability by saying they are certified humane and organic,” he said.

Consumer demand and feed prices all play a role in the business side of dairy farming. What steps individual farmers will take to remain viable remains to be seen.

For Schinner, she is ready for the next battle, believing those who raise and sell animal products for a living are on the attack.

“The battle at the legislative level will become heated as subsidies for animal agriculture start to become challenged by not only activists, but lobbyists for the alt-protein industry as well as some legislators themselves. We are headed for some interesting times when we unravel unfair practices that prop up certain industries while suffocating innovative new technologies,” Schinner said. “These battles will cover everything from nomenclature to subsidies to ag-gag laws that actually protect the incumbent industries and stifle free speech that aims to expose some of those harmful practices.”

Robbins with the Plant Based Foods Association said the push back is from ranchers, pig farmers and dairy ranchers.

“Rather than try to compete on a level playing field, they are constantly trying to undermine the plant-based food industry,” he said. He pointed to the First Amendment struggles like what Miyoko’s Creamery went through. (Miyoko Schinner is a founding board member of PBFA.) “It plays out in courts, in state legislatures, with Congress and the FDA. It is something we are very engaged in.”

Robbins said companies like Tyson, Nestle and Cargill “are our allies.” He added, “They see consumers moving toward plant based and they are looking to diversify their lineups.” 

Non-dairy milk does not have to be refrigerated before it’s opened, thus freeing up display case space at retailers. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The future of non-meat products

            When vegetarian burgers first hit the market in the 1980s they tasted like cardboard. Today it’s possible to get a plant-based burger that closely resembles hamburger in taste and texture.

“It used to be one freezer door with veggie burgers. You did not really see them incorporated into the burger segment,” said Dicker with SPINS. “Today they are merchandised with the beef and turkey burgers. It’s not just vegans eating them now.”

SPINS’ research shows growth in plant-based snacks, cheeses and dressings.

“It doesn’t mean we think meat and dairy are going to go away. It means where plant-based has not had a share it is going to have a share,” Dicker said.

However, no longer are the options solely plant based. Lab meat or cultured meat is available for consumption—though only in Singapore. San Francisco-based Eat Just in 2020 received authorization for its “cultured meat” to be sold there. Singapore is the only country to approve the sale of this type of meat.

Lab meat is when cells are taken from an animal and then reproduced in a laboratory. A positive in this approach is that no animals were slaughtered.

“It is no more fake food than other processes which is what most people in the United States and increasingly around the world are used to,” Nina Gheihman, a

postdoctoral scholar with the Sustainable Food Initiative at UC Berkeley Haas, said. “When people say it is lab food, that is what most people eat. When people are eating cereal, that is lab food. Hamburger is not just meat; it contains antibiotics. Red meat is highly processed. Chickens in particular are genetically modified. If you buy a conventional chicken at a grocery store, that is not real food.”

Gheihman earned her doctorate last year from Harvard, with her dissertation focused on the vegan movement.

Andrew Gravelle, an assistant professor with the UC Davis Department of Food Science & Technology, is doing his own lab experiments. They pertain to fats and how they can be used in plant-based foods to create products that are similar to what happens when meat is cooked.

His focus is on alternative ways of restructuring fat. The role fat has in texture is another component of his research.

Coconut oil is a main ingredient in a lot of vegetarian/vegan foods. Gravelle is looking at how other oils—like avocado and palm—could be used.

“We are structuring oil to behave like a fat so it is solid,” Gravelle explained.

He believes the creation of oleogels with specific applications is the future of plant-based foods to have greater resemblance to their meat counterparts.

Those tracking sales of non-meat products say people who don’t identify as vegan or vegetarian are not eating more, it’s the “flexitarians” who are moving the needle. These are people who still eat meat, but are consuming less each week by eating plant-based foods. They are using soy or some other milk instead of cow milk.

“Veganism is transforming from something that was about the animal rights movement into what is becoming more of a lifestyle movement. Now it is more consumer driven,” Gheihman said.

Gheihman already sees a cultural change in the works, believing there will be a generational transformation in the next 30 years.

“We know it is environmentally unsustainable to do things how we are doing

them,” she said. “One day it may be strange to think we raised animals, had factory farms and slaughtered them when we are eating slaughter free animals. We are moving in that direction because it is inevitable.”

Demographics plays a significant role—at least age—when it comes to who is eating what.

Glab with Wildbrine and WildCreamery reports 38% of those in Gen Z prefer plant based foods, compared to 32% of millennials, 26% of Gen X, and 22% of boomers.

Amy’s Kitchen is also well aware of who is buying what.

“As younger consumers, millennials and Gen Z, get older and make more spending decisions, they’re reaching for plant-based and vegetarian products. But they’re not just going for vegetarian, they’re looking for more from companies,” CEO Berliner said. “They’re aware of their spending power and are seeking out companies that are sustainably minded and doing good in the world. That will become a big differentiator as the vegetarian/vegan market grows.”

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.

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