The food supply chain is often expressed as flowing from farm to table. It is identified as originating at seed or animal and progressing downstream to the consumer. But it can be argued that it is, in fact, driven backward; that the ripples that impact each link of the chain are driven by consumer demands and expectations imposed on the retail marketplace (grocery, restaurant, or farmers’ market) who then drive these back through distribution, manufacturing, and packing, to the farm.
Therein lies the premise of “A Chain of Linked Nuances,” the chapter I authored for Food Traceability (Springer, 2019). Just as all food ends with the person who intends to consume it, so too do the demands and expectations of food begin with that same consumer. So, to understand, and develop solutions for, the nuances and challenges of each link, we must consider consumers to be an integral link; understand their expectations and perceptions (right or wrong); and realize the impact of these on the demands of traceability.
That backward flow is the very essence of traceability or “traceback,” such as that which has always been necessitated by recalls. And that which is now being driven by consumer demand for transparency and accountability, with the use of their virtual voices and purchasing power impacting the entire chain of food production.
This proposition is widely evidenced by a number of today’s trends to which the food industry is acceding, such as that discussed by Roger Lawrence in “Clean Label Trade-Offs.” Noting the increased influence consumers have over the composition of food products, Lawrence states that whether or not a food producer feels consumer perceptions are being unduly influenced; regardless of whether science supports their thinking on additives, etc., “the reality is that consumers should and do have free choice to avoid them regardless of the reason.” An interesting take on consumer perception also is proposed by Darin Detwiler in “Turning Headlines into Public Health Messages.”
Another rapidly emerging trend which is impacting all links of the chain is consumer pursuit of protein-alternative products, such as plant-based and cell-cultured “meats.” Spurring innovation by both established and newly founded food businesses, the overall goal is to reduce the world’s dependency on animals for food. (Be sure to get your copy of the upcoming September/October issue of QA, in which we will profile the meatless meats of Impossible Foods.) With this trend’s focus on both the increased use of plants and the decreased use of animals, the impact will be felt in one way or another by every segment of the industry and every link of the chain.
As all of this shows, each link of the food chain has its unique stressors and strains, but each has an integral charge to keep the chain intact, each must hold itself interconnected with the next, and a pull on any one link will impact every other, forward and back.