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Feeling Good About Food (Again)

The national food safety warnings to not eat pre-packaged spinach that repeatedly headlined news reports in September captured the attention of consumers, the fresh produce industry, grocers, commercial and onsite restaurants and even the e-humor community. (Who hasn't yet seen the cartoon of Popeye, spinach can in hand, laid to rest in his casket!)

Many of the repercussions are still to come. Consumption patterns have already been disrupted, and will likely We are also likely to see additional national food safety regulations and closer scrutiny of growing areas, processing plants, field and plant worker sanitation, and farm irrigation water sourcing and runoff.

One of the things the crisis also underscores is a larger issue that has been creeping to the fore in the foodservice industry for a number of years. That is, the significantly increased concern that customers generally are expressing about the food they eat.

Much more than in the past, consumers worry about where their food comes from, who prepares it and how, what its nutritional and quality characteristics are, and many other factors. And this isn't just an adult phenomenon. Recently I heard the same views expressed by grade school children in a series of student focus groups I ran for a major school district as it was gathering input for wellness policy development.

In the news, Americans read or hear about the dangers of trans fatty acids and saturated fats. About mercury contamination and pesticide residues. About the use of preservatives and growth hormones. About e-coli, salmonella and other bacterial contaminations of our raw and prepared foods.

Consumers are constantly bombarded with information that creates doubt about food's basic wholesomeness, healthfulness and safety. Small wonder, then, that large numbers of those same consumers have begun to feel that food itself is suspect in a larger sense.

(Interestingly, this is taking place at the same time the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that the U.S. food supply is safer now than it has been for years.)

Further, as a majority of U.S. consumers have been raised in urban and suburban communities, far away from the nation's agricultural infrastructure, the food supply chain has become longer and more complex. They've become divorced from the basic food supply facts of life that our parents and grandparents took for granted.

Most no longer have any sense of the experience of cooking fish caught fresh from a stream, lake or shore. Of growing their own carrots, onions tomatoes or potatoes, and of harvesting them "just in time" for dinner. Of where a Thanksgiving dinner turkey (or chicken nuggets, for that matter) come from. Or the fact that a live animal must be raised, fed, slaughtered, cleaned, dressed and processed in order to provide them.

Gone at the same time are traditional understandings about the safe ways to prepare and store food.

If you look at food trends in this context it is very clear why the mass of consumers—our customers— want to "feel good" again about food and where it comes from. I believe it is this issue that, as much as any intellectual understanding, is driving several trends that seem to be converging in today's foodservice marketplace

One is the interest in " sustainable," locally-grown and raised product. Some of this is driven by environmental concerns (you can read much more about this trend in Mike Buzalka's article later in this issue). But it is also being driven by the instinctual sense (deserved or not) that food bought from the farmer who grew it is inherently healthier than that bought from the tail end of a global supply chain.

Organic, "all-natural," preservative-free, "unprocessed," free-range, whole-grain and other descriptors characterize product categories that have seen immense growth in recent years. I would similarly argue that while a desire for perceived better nutrition has engendered some of this growth, plenty of it has also been driven by the fact that such labels simply allow consumers to feel better emotionally about what they are consuming.

Finally, America's fascination with the culinary arts and culture is another indicator. And again, part of this has to do with the growing sophistication of the American palate; but part of it also has to do with the idea that it brings us closer to where our food comes from and how it is prepared. It makes our food "comfort food" once again.

What can onsite operators do to address such concerns? In my mind, local sourcing and organic products have a place. But so does better consumer education and product merchandising, two areas with particular potential for onsite operators and their traditional suppliers. I'll have more to say about these opportunities in my next column.

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