Scenario #2: Big Food sets the standards in a post-pandemic world

What will the food supply look like as we seek a normal life after COVID-19? This month I pursue three possible scenarios about processed foods in “Tomorrowland.” Last week I presented the dream of the New Food Movement. In it there is a mass exodus away from packaged products and to whole foods. This week I paint their nightmare where ultra-processed foods become the norm. What are the chances?

Big Food filled the middle aisles of modern supermarkets pre-pandemic. It expanded its reach during the pandemic. Children went to school on Zoom. Mothers juggled working from home while serving as virtual teacher’s aides. It became all too easy to revert to quick, convenient foods. Nostalgia brought back familiar brands to Boomers and Xers. In the “Tomorrowland” of Big Food survivors of the pandemic focus on convenience and ignore long-term health consequences.

Food companies seek to make a profit. They have other objectives, but making money is primary. When the money runs out, they no longer exist. Neither do the jobs of their employees. Companies also need to maintain a good reputation. A major safety incident affects the bottom line which can plague the company for years. Big Food pursues profits with products that do not jeopardize financial prospects. Companies pride themselves in giving consumers a choice. They produce junk foods if junk foods sell. They produce healthy products or items that appear to be healthy that sell. Manufacturers emphasize convenience as convenience always sells. They market expensive and cheap foods for consumer segments willing to buy them. Expect an increase in processed foods that are popular to increase in markets. Products that lose their popularity occupy niche markets or disappear altogether.

Big Food promotes healthier processed foods. Functional foods become big sellers. These products are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and high-quality protein. Food processors design foods that taste good and have low levels of fat, salt, and added sugar. The trend is away from meat-based items and to plant-based foods. Simulated meat products in the form of plant-based analogs or clean meat become more popular. Many large animal feedlots (CAFOs) go under as American concerns for animal welfare and desires for real meat diminish.

Several manufacturers display clean labels. Those items with strong brand identity and following do not. What matters is what sells. No apologies are forthcoming for ultra-processed foods or their ingredients. New technologies focus on ways to lower sugar and salt without compromising flavor. A growing number of product developers with culinary backgrounds design convenient products that delight consumers. Both premium and low-cost items target different market segments. Increased use of spice mixes help bring down the levels of sodium. Numbers of overweight and obese Americans begin to level off but do not decrease.

Government agencies collaborate with food industry groups to improve safety. Public/private partnerships gain credibility from the successful vaccine rollout. Government and industry use that goodwill to collaborate on improving food safety. Larger corporations are risk averse and maintain strong quality control programs. Product recalls and food-related outbreaks diminish. Small companies with limited analytical capacity fall by the wayside. Likewise, tightened regulations for fresh produce make it more difficult for smaller growers and distributors to compete. Many of these outfits declare bankruptcy. Consolidation into bigger operations continues. Cooperatives with the ability to improve testing capabilities survive. Organizations that cannot adapt disappear. Look for stricter microbial standards on items like romaine and fresh meat products. Blockchain technology improves contact tracing for items that fall between the cracks.

The pace of business increases and less time is available for meal preparation at home. Large fast-food chains expand their menus as they reach into wallets of more Americans. Take-out orders increase. Other chains survive only if they find ways to cut labor costs. More menu items are processed or prepared off site. Ghost kitchens prepare brand-name foods for home delivery. Even white table-cloth operations rely more on pre-processed foods.        

plastic shrink wrapped sweet potato and russet potato
Shrink wrapped vegetables provide convenience

Food distribution patterns change. Companies expand their portfolio of packaged fresh fruits and vegetables. It is not limited to packaged salads, berries, baby carrots, and similar items. Shrink wrapped fruits and vegetables are branded and advertised. More cut-fruit mixes appear in packages at supermarkets. Careful monitoring of shelf-life requirements and discounting reduces waste. Loose fruit and vegetables are not as prevalent as before. Prices of fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets go up.

Distribution channels for fresh, local foods not destined for a supermarket begin to dry up. Growers providing local produce to farmers markets find it more difficult to survive. Abandoned lots become less desirable for urban gardens. Media scares of heavy metals in produce grown in inner cities decrease their appeal. Neighborhoods become more dependent than ever on a functioning supermarket. Companies distributing both fresh and processed foods develop more efficient supply chains.

Packaged fresh fruits and vegetables expand beyond berries and salad mixes

Sustainability is another major goal of the food processing industry. Corporate environmentalism sells. Sales of organic foods, raw and processed, increase. Organic farming is not always the most efficient or most environmental way to go. Collaboration of industry with environmental groups expands. Display of a seal on the label that establishes green credibility to help marketability. Food miles do not reflect the most sustainable practices. Cross-country shipments in driverless trucks produce less emissions than local delivery in pickup trucks to farmers markets. Meal kits shipped long distances by air find disfavor and begin to disappear. Careful monitoring of items from farm to plant or market helps decrease food waste. The further waste occurs from the field, the greater the loss of inputs. The greater the loss of inputs, the less sustainable the operation. Decision makers in food companies balance sustainable practices against the bottom line. Each company discontinues practices that do not pay for themselves.

Bottom line. Profits drive every decision made by Big Food. Companies seek market niches that allow them to survive. Development of new foods emphasizes opportunities in health and sustainability. Marketing more fresh foods by major corporations represents a growth opportunity. Large companies must meet sales objectives for each product to remain on the shelves. Reducing food waste is not only good for the environment. It is also good for cost reduction and increased profit. But are we limited to a choice between visions of the New Food Movement and Big Food?

Next week: Scenario #3: A balanced approach to future food

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