The retail food industry just isn’t what it used to be, says Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute.
Sarasin was one of more than a dozen speakers Wednesday at a day-long forum at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which explored the changes in the food industry and provided a look at where the industry is headed.
Traditionally, she said, consumers looked at three factors before making a purchase – cost, convenience and taste.
“So, if you had a convenient product, at a price a consumer could afford, and it tasted decent, then you had a sale,” she said. That worked just fine for many years, she said, but, now, with so much information available online and elsewhere, “this value equation has exploded into a whole litany of different questions – where was it produced? Is it an ethnic food? … Does it have GMOs? – these are things we never spent too much time thinking about before.”
Additionally, she said, grocery shopping is no longer just a woman’s chore. “What we know is that 85 percent of our population in the U.S. identify themselves as grocery shoppers – that’s huge,” she said. “More men are shopping than ever before.”
Nicole Davis, senior innovation manager for supermarket giant Kroger, provided more statistics to illustrate the “megatrends” affecting the industry. Seventy percent of consumers look for ingredients while shopping, she said, while 15 percent of the U.S. population are vegans or vegetarians; in addition, 83 percent of adults experience gastrointestinal problems, meaning they are looking for certain products like cereals and nonfat yogurts that are easy on the stomach.
What’s more, she said, “40 percent of millennials cook a dish from another culture at least once a week.”
The new technology has helped create what Danielle Gould, founder of the food consultancy Food+Tech Connect, calls “food tribes.” Gould said she spends lots of time on Facebook looking for groups associating with niche foods. She said she’s found hundreds of groups devoted to gluten-free and vegetarian diets, groups devoted to fasting, and 24 groups devoted to “backyard rabbit farming.”
“Food is becoming increasingly tied to identity,” Gould said.
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Other speakers at the forum included Roger Buelow, chief technology officer for AeroFarms, a pioneer in vertical farming and aeroponic vegetable production; Cullen Gilchrist, CEO and co-founder of Union Kitchen, a food business accelerator; and Janet Muir, director of finance with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Global Seed Vault on a remote island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Sometimes called the Doomsday Vault, the facility holds more than a million varieties of seeds at a constant 18 degrees Celsius deep inside a mountain, the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity.
Muir explained that the vault was constructed a decade ago to protect a food supply threatened by climate change, pestilence, and manmade conflict.
“It’s comforting to know that we can retrieve this material and start afresh after a nuclear war,” she said. “We never know which variety is going to protect us.”
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