Food Routes and how supply chains function in food networks

Allyship, vaccine, and vax are only some of the words of the year selected for 2021. I nominate supply chain as the two-word phrase of the year. Woes in the supply chain help explain why foods, Christmas gifts, and other essential items don’t get to us on time. Many of us first started hearing about supply chains when we couldn’t get enough toilet paper to meet our needs. More and more this past year supply chain has cropped up in the daily news. A recent book emerged to help us better understand supply chains. The book is Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating.

Robyn Metcalfe describes the complexity of food distribution in Food Routes. As a food historian she traces food from its source to our mouths. I like the perspective of food historians. They give us a different view of the way food management, handling, and acceptance. They also let us know about changes over time. Too often we think of food and its distribution as static. Or we envision the present as dreadful and the past as perfect.

Her first chapter illustrates the complexity of sourcing ingredients for a restaurant pizza. It becomes obvious that the restaurant is not dealing with a single supply chain. Rather many chains converge to get our pizza prepared and placed on the raised, metal stand at our table. The success of each supply chain depends on reliability, technology, trust, and adaptability. Metcalfe concedes that “all food is processed at some point.”  She also adds that “shelf life requires some respect.” She decries “hyperprocessing” which requires “synthetic additives.” One goal is the “elimination of the middleman.” “Network,” is the author’s term for the “food system.” The aim of every food network should be “delivering the best product at the best price.” Metcalfe impresses me with her clear description of  sourcing ingredients through supply-chain management. As a food scientist I do have problems with her dismissal of  middlemen, food science, and ‘hyperprocessing.’

blogger enjoying a slice of pizza and a beer
Blogger eating a gluten-free pizza at a restaurant

Reliability. Pizza ingredients travel from “farm to table.” It is the ‘to’ that is the supply chain. Everything located here is the focus of Food Routes. Within the ‘to’ is where the ‘middlemen’ reside. To simplify the ingredient network is a noble goal, but most middlemen perform useful functions. Some middlemen accumulate shipments from many suppliers. These businesses limit the number of individual deliveries of ingredients to the restaurant. The author seeks to reduce food waste, additives, and wasteful packaging. For perishable products postharvest technologists distinguish between food loss and waste. Food loss occurs either in the field or en route to the restaurant or retailer. Lost food never makes it to market. Wasted food is discarded at the market or by the consumer. Food waste occurs at restaurants, supermarkets, and home. Additives and packaging can serve to prevent food loss and waste.

Technology. Despite an anti-technology perspective, most of us enjoy the fruits of food technology. Without adequate refrigeration, fruits and vegetables turn into food waste. Minimal processes reduce food waste and shorten preparation or cooking times. Metcalfe introduces some very interesting shipping concepts. One such idea is growing food in shipping containers in transit. It is a neat solution, but I envision some problems. How much added cost do such procedures incur and are consumers willing to pay for them? What happens if the containers are on a ship anchored offshore waiting for unloading? Or if the container is sitting on the dock waiting for a truck to carry it to its destination? The greatest logjam in most chains is the lack of qualified truckers. Will autonomous trucks help solve this problem?

Trust. Food delivery from farm to market encompasses many steps. Trusting the authenticity of the food we buy is important to us. We tend to trust whole foods over processed products. What happens to those foods along the way? The author describes the specific chicken we buy and traces it back to the farm. How much do we want to know? Do we need to know who the names of the person who caught the chicken and the one that slit its throat? Are the workers undocumented? Do we want to know how much these workers earn? Or would we prefer a fable like we read on the outside of a milk carton? How much of a price premium are we willing to pay for this information?

Traceability is possible through blockchain technology. Food safety depends on traceability. Will the information we gain in trust compensate for the amount of energy required to maintain it? How much do we need to know about all other aspects of the voyage up and down the chain? Then there are privacy issues that obscure the transparency we desire. Critical in that assessment is the final mile our food travels to our door.

Adaptability. To be successful a supply chain must adapt to changing conditions in all steps between the farm and us. It also must plan for changes in our wants and needs. We have seen many such challenges facing food distribution during the pandemic. Containers languish on ships in the harbor and in container farms on land. Worker shortages in moving food through the chain affect quality of perishable foods. Refrigeration costs across long distances also affect price, freshness, and quality.

Food 2.0 vs. Food 3.0. Metcalfe introduces two visions of the future of food. Food 2.0 is evolutionary to improve reliability, technology, trust, and adaptability. Food 3.0 is revolutionary introducing a very different way to handle foods from source to us. Food 2.0 introduces more plant-based products to replace whole, animal foods. Evolutionary changes will bring us more robots and fewer employees in the chain. Food 3.0 brings us clean (or lab-cultured) meats with less farms. All ingredients will come within 50 miles of where we live and work.

The author prefers a revolutionary change in food networks. I prefer evolutionary change. Revolutions tend to destroy existing structures before replacing them with new ones. Unexpected consequences make revolutionary change dangerous. Among the changes Metcalfe expects are edible packaging and the end of food banks. Don’t know about you, but most food scientists would not eat an edible package picked up off a dirty shelf. Evolution branches out with changes meant to improve aspects of the network. It becomes clear in a short time whether such changes are effective or not. Small, niche markets may bud up to meet special needs or desires with some modifications. Businesses adopt changes that are effective at meeting market conditions.

In the 1980s many companies went to just-in-time delivery for manufacturing. Companies needed fewer warehouses. Plants used up supplies within hours of delivery. Just-in-time was a revolutionary change that took over all types of manufacturing operations. There were many glitches at first, but warehouses started to come down. Industry adapted. Forty years on just-in-time met its fiercest challenge—COVID-19. What do we do with fresh fruits and vegetables when so many restaurants close? Supply chains for supermarkets are not the same as those for restaurants. It is not that simple to divert items from one network to another. Just-in-time was  only one revolution. Imagine the difficulties in blowing up how we handle food today. Then we would need to introduce many, major revolutionary changes. Not a world I want to live in.

I admit to being rather harsh on some suggestions made in Food Routes. The book is great in describing the current situation of food distribution. I recommend the book to anyone wondering how food gets from there to here. I also like the emphasis on reliability, technology, trust and adaptability. Network is a much better term than system to describe how food gets from its many sources to a single destination. Description of the historical perspective and the current situation are excellent. My concerns are with the changes proposed. We need change, but let it be evolutionary not revolutionary. If all the book’s predictions come true, we will all eat better and healthier. If not, many of us will end up hungry, and some of us will starve.

In defense of food scientists. The author singles out food scientists on at least 8 of the book’s 173 pages. She urges us to reduce the processed food sold and eaten. She also wants smaller processing plants located closer to consumers. Most of all she wants more natural ingredients. Get rid of “synthetic additives” with “unpronounceable” names. Food safety is also very important in Food Routes. Metcalfe doesn’t give food scientists much credit for maintaining the safety of whole and processed foods. Unpronounceable, synthetic additives extend shelf life and also help prevent foodborne illness. It is food packages, many of which are plastic, that keep out dangerous microbes. Many of my former students and I have experience in both large and small processing plants. Larger companies tend to pay more attention to food safety than independent companies operating small local plants.

Components in whole foods are natural chemicals. Iso-amyl acetate in bananas and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in grilled steak are examples. Neither one appears on any food label. Neither one extends shelf life or keeps food safe. It is important to know which chemicals in foods are beneficial and which ones are harmful. Iso-amyl acetate give the banana its distinct aroma and flavor. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are very toxic. “Hyperprocessed” foods are much safer than grilled meats.

One more thought on middlemen. They are not those evil proprietors in the middle of the chain that add cost without adding value. Anyone who has ever ordered an item from Amazon has taken advantage of middlemen. The driver of the Amazon delivery truck is a middleman. Amazon is a huge bloated middleman. Everyone not an employee of the original supplier is a middleman. Go back to the pizza restaurant in the first chapter. Think of the hassle it would create if the original supplier delivered each ingredient.  Not to mention added carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Bottom line. Food Routes is an excellent description of how food travels from its source to its destination. Anyone who has ever wondered about how food gets to them should consider reading this book. It is great at describing the complexity of food networks. It also provides some historical perspective. There are underlying contexts within food networks that the author might not appreciate. Such factors could make it difficult to make the changes she suggests.

Next week: Arriving Today and how our need for speed is tying up food chains

7 thoughts on “Food Routes and how supply chains function in food networks

  1. I was impressed at the author’s appreciation of the supply chain. I was not so impressed with her understanding of food and food preservation. Food historians provide an unique perspective that most food scientists fail to appreciate. It is a book worth reading.

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  2. No surprises. Follows popular images, makes me ask again WHY are these images so popular? What causes the unscientific and sometimes counter-scientific adulation of the “natural” and demonization of the synthetic? And why are we not scrambling more to see these reasons? My explanations that we distrust humans as creators and that science challenges the need to believe miracles get ignored, rather than logically argued.
    The author wants more local farming, despite the economic and health advantages of big agriculture and big processing, and thus supports an economic differentiation among eaters. Money matters. And what about the responsibility of the eaters to protect their own health by self-discipline in eating?

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    1. Perhaps David Rakoff said it best. “There is almost no more urban view of nature than this pastoral, idyllic one: Humankind bad, Nature good. as in drinking and fighting bad, elves and flowers good. But it is a false dichotomy. After all, following this logic, Sistine chapel bad, Ebola virus good.” from “Fraud: Essays” D. Rakoff, 2002,New York, Broadway Books.

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