Globalization, safety, regulation, efficiency, and refrigerants are now leading variables in the complex food-delivery equation. What the food delivery system will be in a decade will depend largely on industry creativity. Innovation across a wide range agenda will be required. It’s important to first look at the full range of forces driving industry change and how they interact.
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People and Production
In 1910, the U.S. population was about 92 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, of which about 46 percent lived in cities. A century later, in 2010, the population had exploded to more than 300 million people, approximately 80 percent of which lived in cities. In three generations, the U.S. transitioned from largely rural to overwhelmingly urban, while more than tripling its population. These trends continue today.
Simultaneously, agricultural production experienced a revolution. In 1870, 70 to 80 percent of America’s population worked in agriculture. According to USDA estimates, a mere 2 to 3 percent of the population provided the national food supply in 2008—made possible by advanced industrial technology and modernized management.
The fundamentals are shifting not only in the U.S. It is estimated that the global population will increase by two billion in the next 25 years, a number that cannot be fed unless advanced agriculture becomes a global tool. But if it does, the quality of life around the world will be transformed.
The picture that emerges is of a new kind of global society and a new kind of global agriculture making possible a quantum leap in the conditions of lives everywhere. But these changes can be viewed from other angles. For example, food prices in the U.S. have increased 35 percent since 2009 and 48 million people in the U.S. become sick each year because of foodborne illness. Shifts in U.S. population growth and urbanization, plus the development of technology, more sophisticated supply chains, and the broad need to do more with less, have transformed American food delivery. And growing reliance in the U.S. on globally sourced food will fuel a similar movement beyond American borders. It will also provide both added price pressures and greater support for embracing safety and efficiency as central themes of all future strategic thinking on food worldwide.
Retailers now reach around the world to optimize costs, as well as for wider varieties and substitutes for foods scarce on local shores. But globalization has large implications for food safety, not least because exporting countries vary in safety standards. For example, global food supply chains now dominate the seafood marketplace for Americans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. But a 2011 study by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future notes that only 2 percent of imported seafood is tested for contamination. So, while profit margin pressures have driven globalization of the food chain, globalization has also imported a vast breach in the U.S. food safety regime, which carries risks for brands and of financial liability.
The Demand for Safety
Food safety has long been a keystone in food-delivery strategy. But improvements in food delivery have created new vulnerabilities in safety, even as earlier risks are better addressed. Changes in warehousing strategy, for example, mean refrigeration needs change as well—both within buildings and during transportation. More processed food means less spoilage of whole foods, but also more and varying points of contamination risk—during processing and in moving from the processing plant to the grocery store.
More fundamental safety challenges, however, may now arise from technology. Technology makes modern food possible. It also gives rise to a delivery chain that is steadily more complex, agile, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. Each link in the chain involves discreet and quickly evolving possibilities and needs—in the field (whether domestic or overseas), perhaps at more than one location, in multiple transportation avenues, and in new storage and display facilities. The safety challenges resulting from such changes in food delivery are essentially the result of the broad trend toward faster, deeper technological innovation. They will be as complex and ever changing as the technologies that create them.