Food processing and
The world we live in is different from that of our great-grandparents. Everything moves faster and changes faster too. There is more knowledge, more choice and more legislation. We live differently and we eat differently. Food manufacturing and processed food has, and still does, play a part in this change.
The very mention of processed food can lead to some very interesting and emotive discussions. In this article it is not my intention to discuss whether or not you should eat a certain food, but rather to reveal a few of the opportunities that exist for Christians in food manufacturing, and how we can fulfil our calling in this environment.
Urbanisation has changed what, and the way we eat
In 2018, 55.3% of the world’s population was considered urban dwelling, and this is forecast to grow to approximately two thirds of the projected world population by 2050. In New Zealand, 87% of us dwell in an urban setting (2019)1.
To most of us urbanisation brings up images of growing towns and cities, housing difficulties, water and sanitation issues, traffic problems and air pollution2 but it is more than this. Urbanisation has been a product of industrialisation for nearly two centuries and is one of the biggest drivers in determining the food system we have today. It has determined where our food is produced, distributed and processed, how it is used, and what is done with the waste. For food manufacturers, urbanisation has driven, and continues to drive, their businesses – small or large – in the decisions they make, and how they innovate3.
The Fall of man makes food processing necessary in an urbanised world
Another factor driving food manufacturing, one that is not so often acknowledged in the workforce, is the effect of the fall. The world that our Lord created “very good” no longer functions as originally designed. Death and decay, pest and disease have become a part of our world. Much of the food grown today needs to be preserved against the decaying effects of sin in order for it to be transported and used later in urban areas.
Understanding the effects of sin gives a deeper appreciation for the battle we are in. Nature is not as God intended it. It is groaning. Food manufacturers do their best to reduce the impact with processes such as freezing, canning, pasteurising, packing, chilling, nitrogen flushing, formulation controls and many other technologies. But there is always a best-before or use-by date. Until our Lord returns, this fight will remain.
The created order is one of the fundamentals that enables us to process food
My work colleagues joke that I moved from RandD to ‘the dark side’ of the food industry – marketing. That is a bit of a stretch, but to be honest, you will find me a more animated person when I talk to you about how cheese is made, than what I do to sell it. The excitement is in the discovery of the scientific ‘rules’ that underpin food manufacturing, and how they are used to create new foods.
What I find most amazing is that these ‘rules’ have been in operation since creation. Our Lord spoke them into being. We have only discovered them. Water boils at different temperatures at different pressures because of the way surface and atmospheric pressure relationships were designed, and we use this to our advantage in processing fruit juices. We successfully dry huge quantities of milk into powder in enormous dryers because of the designed relationship between fluid and air dynamics and boiling points. We package biscuits in different types of plastic and determine a best-before date based on an understanding of air permeability. We create the most amazing flavoured cheeses because we have learnt that different bacteria create different flavours and textures when they break down milk proteins. These are only a few examples. We have only just scratched the surface and there are many exciting discoveries yet to be made. Without these ‘rules’ much of what you or I eat today would not be in existence.
Food manufacturing is the process of taking edible raw materials (and ingredients) and transforming them into food products that can be bought and sold. Food manufacturers are businesses and need to make a profit to continue and grow. Both small and big food manufacturers need to understand:
– their product range
– process and future developments
– their consumer and how to communicate with them
– the legislation framework they function in
– negotiation skills for suppliers and their own distribution network
– safe and efficient methods of food storage
– economic strategising and forecasting
– payroll and handling transactions
– human resources
As consumers it’s unlikely that you or I think much about any of the key tasks of food manufacturers when we purchase our favourite snack or do a grocery shop. But food manufacturers certainly watch us as consumers and the ever-changing world we live in to give themselves the best chance of success.
Innovation is needed to support sustainability
Consumers are driving a change in the food industry (and other industries) with a push towards sustainability. It’s the global buzz word and it’s a contentious issue.
Sustainable development means meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
As a Christian this doesn’t feel like such a stretch from the mandate we have been given to subdue and have dominion over the earth (Gen 1:26). Creation was meant for our use, but not only for our use, also for us to love and care for.
Food manufacture and processed food creates waste. As the world’s population and urbanisation grows, waste becomes a bigger problem. It’s not only packaging waste, it is also food waste, energy waste and water waste. We have the opportunity today, in almost every manufacturing task, to identify wasteful practices and turn them into something better. Two very different examples I’ve seen in the dairy industry include:
– Energy recycling by using the steam produced during milk powder production to start warming the milk going into the dryer.
– Closing the loop on recycling milk bottles. One brand has worked with recyclers to create innovative ways to use 100% of the milk bottles they produce – including slip sheets that the dairy factories use, pipes, and hungry bins for composting.
Science is a pillar for the food industry and technology supports continuous development
Technology has advanced significantly over the past century. The introduction of refrigerators, electric ovens and microwaves into homes; packaging, computers and robotics into manufacturing; and better transport infrastructure has allowed processed food to become more widely available, and also more affordable.
Technology continues to develop in ways that many of us could not imagine. 3D printing of food is being explored. And while it might be a long time – and perhaps never – before manufacturers use it in production lines, it is technology that is being used by the likes of Hershey and Oreo to create customised products. There are likely many hurdles along the way for this technology, particularly when it comes to the ingredients used and nutrients available, but it has potential especially in the customised market.
Robotics continue to improve, and things such as ‘lights off’ packing rooms in which products are automatically packaged, stacked, wrapped and put into containers all by robots are fairly common today. The cost saving in this is significant, and the technology and design behind it is really quite amazing.
Scientific research enables the development of new and improved foods. This is my happy place. A place where I can witness the amazing world our Lord has created. Some of it is scientifically complex and the research can take many years – I spent four years working on the development of two protein ingredients for nutrition drinks for the elderly (scarily classed as anyone over 60ish!) and how exciting it was to finally get to a viable solution. Some development is a lot simpler and goes a lot faster – like flavour changes and line extensions. They all offer unique and often unexpected challenges, and allow us to learn at every turn.
Food research and development offers opportunities to influence the care for mankind in a way that the Lord requires of us. Within the fit of the company you work for, is there a way to solve some of the broader issues such as hunger and famine? For example: is there a way we can make an affordable cheese that never needs to be in the fridge? Would this allow better nutrition for those in countries where hunger is real and fridges are scarce? Or it could simply be, do I need to put as much sugar in the yoghurt we target at children? Or, what is the most wonderful product we can create that shows the goodness of our Lord (I’d put almost anything chocolate in that list!)?
There are many opportunities, and there are many challenges. Food manufacturing is an interesting and diverse industry to be involved in. The Lord gives us all different skills and different opportunities. If yours is in the food industry, it’s a great place to shine for Him.
1 The World Bank Data. United Nations Population Division. World Urbanization Prospects: 2018 Revision. Urban population (% of total population)https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS
2 Murali, M. Cummings, C,Feyertag, J. et al. 10 things to know about the impacts of urbanisation. Briefing papers. October 2018. https://odi.org/en/publications/10-things-to-know-about-the-impacts-of-urbanisation/
3 Bricas N. (2019) Urbanization Issues Affecting Food System Sustainability. In: Brand C. et al. (eds) Designing Urban Food Policies. Urban Agriculture. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-13958-2_1
4 Gartenstein D. (2018) The Definition of Food Manufacturing. https://bizfluent.com/about-6623871-definition-food-manufacturing.html
5 Brundtland, G., 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. [online] Available at: http://un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf
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