New Food with an Age-Old Problem

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Next week I will be attending the Future Food Tech (futurefoodtechsf.com) gathering in San Francisco where the focus will likely be on meatless-meat products and plant-based solutions.

According to recent news, the market is embarking on a modern day food science revolution for meat alternatives. Industry leaders tout it as the hottest trend for 2018. Recent investments by Cargill, Tyson, Nestle, Richard Branson and Bill Gates in Memphis Meats, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Sweet Earth confirm that start-ups and big food alike are betting on this segment.

Plant-based and meat alternatives are the type of transformative ventures that captivates Silicon Valley. Reducing our dependence on resource-intensive animal products is the kind of problem that puts technology at the center of the solution, It also shoots for lofty goals: feeding the hungry, curbing emissions, and saving the planet. Josh Tetrick of Just (previously Hampton Creek) told Fast Company in 2016 that his company’s mission was to “re-think the entire food chain”.

I share his goal but take a different view: over-emphasizing formulation is shortsighted. After all, distribution is at the heart of the food chain. It is the means of getting food from the farm or processing plant directly to the consumer or to a food service facility—restaurants, cafeterias and hospitals. The biggest gains in feeding the hungry, improving food security, curbing greenhouse emissions and ultimately saving the planet will come from solving food distribution challenges. Flash freezing, fuel-efficient vehicles and AI logistics are but a few of the technological advancements streamlining food distribution. Distribution is ultimately restrained by the food preservation method used. Solving for food preservation is, in my view, the key to transforming the entire food chain.

“Study of every ancient civilization clearly shows that throughout history humans overcame hunger and disease, not only by harvesting food from a cultivated land but also by processing it with sophisticated methods. “(1)

New delivery vehicles have emerged for fresh food and new technologies have emerged to improve pasteurization and freezing processes to extend shelf life. However, these unsophisticated processes further burden distribution, especially now with growth in direct-to-consumer delivery.   Fresh foods limit shipping distances and require refrigeration. They spoil quickly and add substantively to food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Frozen foods are expensive to store for the processor, retailer and the consumer. In many parts of the developing world, cold chains are practically non-existent, limiting the reach of these formats.

The prevalent method of preserving foods for the shelf—or those that do not require refrigeration—has barely changed since it was introduced during the Napoleonic Wars. This two century-old method of preserving food, called retort or canning, cooks food for long periods of time, stripping flavor, texture and most importantly nutrients in the process. Although retort produces generally safe foodstuffs with shelf life of a year or more, it is a flawed method for feeding the world, even if it is the most efficient and cost-effective way to store and distribute food.

Groundbreaking plant based and alternative meat formulations will face the same conundrum every food manufacturer is up against: distribution constraints by virtue of the preservation method used.

Choose fresh and you limit your distribution reach. Choose frozen and watch your distribution and storage costs increase significantly both for you and your customers.  Neither format works for the new direct-to-consumer paradigm, limiting growth in a way that even big brands cannot surmount. Neither format does much for the earth. Go with retort and you will ruin your product’s clean formulation and end up with the same packaged foods now languishing in the center aisle of the grocery store.

Preservation is the Achilles heel of the food industry for old food and new. It is the type of deep-rooted problem that can only be solved with technology advancement.

More investment in tech solutions for food preservation is needed to affect distribution in a way that truly transforms the entire food chain and solves world problems.

It is exactly the type of rip-it and start again undertaking that should capture the interest of Silicon Valley.

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(1) FLOROS, J. D., NEWSOME, R., FISHER, W., BARBOSA-CÁNOVAS, G. V., CHEN, H., DUNNE, C. P., GERMAN, J. B., HALL, R. L., HELDMAN, D. R., KARWE, M. V., KNABEL, S. J., LABUZA, T. P., LUND, D. B., NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN, M., ROBINSON, J. L., SEBRANEK, J. G., SHEWFELT, R. L., TRACY, W. F., WEAVER, C. M. AND ZIEGLER, G. R. (2010), FEEDING THE WORLD TODAY AND TOMORROW: THE IMPORTANCE OF FOOD SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. COMPREHENSIVE REVIEWS IN FOOD SCIENCE AND FOOD SAFETY, 9: 572–599. DOI:10.1111/J.1541-4337.2010.00127.X