There’s no denying that more and more Americans are adopting healthier eating habits. There’s also no denying that they are still creatures of convenience. Not only do consumers want real food—nutritious, natural, fresh, unprocessed, and free of preservatives—but they also want it to be fast and easy.
However, making fresh, home cooked meals isn’t something that everyone has the time, interest, or ability to do. While the healthier-eating trend is pushing us toward fresh ingredients, there’s an equally powerful trend demanding convenience. Microwave meals are not the answer anymore, but study after study shows that Americans aren’t willing to devote many hours to meal preparation in the kitchen or cruising aisles at the grocery store either. Society has learned to expect increasing convenience in every aspect of our lives, and getting dinner on the table quickly is no exception.
So how do we rethink the nationwide food industry infrastructure to get fresh, convenient food to consumers—whether onto store shelves or direct to doorstep—and do it safely?
The Enemy to Prepped Perishable Food
The current food distribution system struggles to meet these twin demands for freshness and convenience when it comes to short shelf life, prepped perishable products. Food is the third-largest expenditure in most Americans’ monthly budgets, but surprisingly unlike the two other big-ticket categories—housing and transportation, which have seen major technology advancements—food distribution is still for the most part a very low-tech system. It’s slow, it’s inefficient, and it isn’t built to move prepped perishable food quickly.
Too often prepped perishable foods (e.g. pre-chopped vegetables, pre-peeled and cut fruits, etc.) lose their luster because of breaks in the cold chain during fulfillment and delivery, and due to inefficiencies occurring at every stage of the production and distribution process. Although consumer demands are clearly changing, the distribution system remains stuck in the past, making it difficult to get the fresh, flavorful, prepped foods people want to where they are needed.
Awareness of the need to handle prepped perishable food more effectively and through differentiated, convenient solutions is growing. Supermarkets are feeling the pressure to meet the demand for fresher items and convenience packaging and services, and are now offering tools like online ordering and expanding their prepped perishable sections. Freshness and convenience are also being touted by new categories such as direct-to-home meal kits. However, this sector is experiencing challenges of its own. Many current meal kit solutions often include un-prepped ingredients, which require more time in the kitchen than would be considered turnkey by many consumers. Plus, the ingredients themselves are often below quality standards, or even unsafe, due to poor thermal packaging in transit.
A ‘Break’ in Safe, Fresh Delivery
With food delivery, whether to store shelves or direct-to-home, the cold chain is the number one, two, and three most important consideration in a good food safety program. Breaks in the cold chain are a critical issue when dealing with prepped perishable foods.
For direct-to-home, the primary challenge appears to be the gap between delivery and refrigeration—the last hours of the last mile. As one example, most meal kit vendors and delivery companies don’t consider that many people work during the day and a delivery left on a doorstep may sit for hours before the items are unpacked and refrigerated. Additionally, they don’t think about how the ice packs shift during shipping. Upon delivery, the protein may not even be next to the ice anymore. Not to mention, some packages sit in the cold, some in the heat, and some in the sun. All of this creates a difficult problem that takes deep thermal research and understanding to solve.