Few weeks ago, I wrote about the “clean food” movement. It was part of a discussion on the technology that produces meat from labs and non-animal sources. The trend goes far beyond just meat and encompasses the entire food spectrum. This food trend is pervasive with millennial consumers and the generation coming after them. The demands of these consumers may prove impossible to meet by traditional agriculture and food production systems.
Food fads and trends are not new. In the 1820s, the Lord Byron diet had people eating nothing but potatoes covered in vinegar. In more modern times, the 1970s was the decade of fondue. The 1980s saw the popularity of tropical fruits like kiwi. The word for the 90s was “light” — from light beer to light desserts, like tiramisu. The new millennium produced a desire for new foods like hummus, quinoa, avocadoes, and the emergence of the smoothie as the drink of choice. In the last few years, kale, ramen, matcha, and anything organic are the hot trends. Now clean and local have moved into the mainstream, and the food industry is taking notice.
At the recent Bayer AgVocacy Forum, two industry experts described what restaurants are putting on their menus and what food service is cooking up to meet the changing tastes of younger consumers. Their description of what people want to eat today should send up a red flag for many farmers.
Michael Whiteman, a consultant to restaurants around the world, described meat as being moved down or in some cases off the menu. Vegetables are the new star. Even in steakhouse restaurants, veggies are at the top of the menu and the center of the plate. He added local is becoming a big trend in restaurants. He added that there are no standards for what is local, and, if a restaurant says it sources from “local growers” it does well.
Connie Diekman, Director of Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said the clean eating movement is a major force with today’s college students. Students want their food served in the most natural way possible. Any additives or chemicals are seen as bad and are shunned by these consumers. She said that, when a website posted a claim that the food service scrambled eggs had chemicals in them, sales fell off sharply. She said only when the University removed the natural and safe fats and fillers they had been putting in the eggs for cooking and consistency, sales began to return.
Farmers are very good at producing for a market. Yet, this market has no clear standard. Local can mean anything from 1 mile to 1,000 miles. Clean can mean anything from additive-free to heirloom-nonhybrid-non-GMO. The “guilt free” meat movement, also part of this trend, is based on the fact that the meat does not come from animals. When a local tomato farmer at the forum was asked if he can produce for a clean market, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, we can wash them.”
As we have seen food trends come and go, it remains to be seen if the move to clean food from local sources will change as younger consumers get older or if this represents a paradigm shift in the food sector. Certainly the desire for local represents a market opportunity for farmers. But the anti-animal meat perception by many younger consumers is an issue with which the livestock industry must come to grips.
Agriculture cannot be complacent, assuming things will be as they always have been. It is my belief that some fundamental changes have taken place in the way food and food production are viewed in the U.S. and in most developed nations. While food fads and trends will continue to change, the public’s perception of how their food is produced will continue to shape their food preferences and choices.
By Gary Truitt