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14.3: The Food Industry

Skills to Develop

  • Explain what is meant by the term “the food industry” and identify the food technologies and innovations that have shaped the current food system

 

Agriculture is one of the world’s largest industries. It encompasses trillions of dollars and employs billions of people. In the United States alone, customers spent about $500 billion annually on food products at grocery stores and supermarkets.Plunkett Research, Ltd. “US Food Industry Overview.” Accessed December 5, 2011, http://www.plunkettresearch.com/food%20beverage%20grocery%20market %20research/industry%20statistics. The food industry includes a complex collective of businesses that touches on everything from crop cultivation to manufacturing and processing, from marketing and advertising to distribution and shipment, to food regulation.

The Food System

The food system is a network of farmers and related operations, including food processing, wholesale and distribution, retail, industry technology, and marketing. The milk industry, for example, includes everything from the farm that raises livestock, to the milking facility that extracts the product, to the processing company that pasteurizes milk and packages it into cartons, to the shipping company that delivers the product to stores, to the markets and groceries that stock and sell the product, to the advertising agency that touts the product to consumers. All of these components play a part in a very large system.

These cows are lined up at a Rotary milking parlor. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0; Gunnar Richter Namenlos.net).

Food Preservation and Processing

Two important aspects of a food system are preservation and processing. Each provides for or protects consumers in different ways. Food preservation includes the handling or treating of food to prevent or slow down spoilage. Food processing involves transforming raw ingredients into packaged food, from fresh-baked goods to frozen dinners. Although there are numerous benefits to both, preservation and processing also pose some concerns, in terms of both nutrition and sustainability.

Food Preservation

Food preservation protects consumers from harmful or toxic food. There are different ways to preserve food. Some are ancient methods that have been practiced for generations, such as curing, smoking, pickling, salting, fermenting, canning, and preserving fruit in the form of jam. Others include the use of modern techinques and technology, including drying, vacuum packing, pasteurization, and freezing and refrigeration. Preservation guards against food-bourne illnesses, and also protects the flavor, color, moisture content, or nutritive value of food.

Irradiation

Another method of preservation is irradiation, which reduces potential pathogens to enhance food safety. This process involves treating food with ionizing radiation, which kills the bacteria and parasites that cause toxicity and disease. Similar technology is used to sterilize surgical instruments to avoid infection.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Food Irradiation.” Accessed October 11, 2005. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/foodirradiation.htm. Foods currently approved for irradiation by the FDA include flour, fruits and vegetables, juices, herbs, spices, eggs, and meat and poultry.

Most forms of preservation can affect the quality of food. For example, freezing slightly affects the nutritional content, curing and smoking can introduce carcinogens, and salting greatly increases the sodium. There are also concerns about the effects of using irradiation to preserve food. Studies have shown that this process can change the flavor, texture, color, odor, and nutritional content of food. For example, the yolks of irradiated eggs have less color than nonirradiated eggs.

Food Processing

Food processing includes the methods and techniques used to transform raw ingredients into packaged food. Workers in this industry use harvested crops or slaughtered and butchered livestock to create products that are marketed to the public. There are different ways in which food can be processed, from a one-off product, such as a wedding cake, to a mass-produced product, such as a line of cupcakes packaged and sold in stores.

The Pros and Cons of Food Processing

 

Food processing has a number of important benefits, such as creating products that have a much longer shelf life than raw foods. Also, food processing protects the health of the consumer and allows for easier shipment and the marketing of foods by corporations. However, there are certain drawbacks. Food processing can reduce the nutritional content of raw ingredients. For example, canning involves the use of heat, which destroys the vitamin C in canned fruit. Also, certain food additives that are included during processing, such as high fructose corn syrup, can affect the health of a consumer. However, the level of added sugar can make a major difference. Small amounts of added sugar and other sweeteners, about 6 to 9 teaspoons a day or less, are not considered harmful.American Heart Association. “Sugar and Carbohydrates.” Last updated October 12, 2010. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Sugars-and-Carbohydrates_UCM_303296_Article.jsp#.

Industrial cheese production. 10,000 l milk in the left tank, the milk was mixed with rennet and is now broken for the production of Emmentaler.. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0;  MatthiasKabel).

Food Regulation and Control

Food regulatory agencies work to protect the consumer and ensure the safety of our food. Food and drug regulation in the United States began in the late nineteenth century when state and local governments began to enact regulatory policies. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act, which led to the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Today, a number of agencies are in charge of monitoring how food is produced, processed, and packaged.EH.Net Encyclopedia. “History of Food and Drug Regulation in the United States.” February 4, 2010. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/Law.Food.and.Drug.Regulation.

Regulatory Agencies

Food regulation is divided among different agencies, primarily the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Regulatory agencies in Canada include the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada. The North American public depends on these and other agencies to ensure that the food they purchase and consume from supermarkets, restaurants, and other sources is safe and healthy to eat. It can be confusing to know which agency monitors and manages which regulatory practice. For example, the FDA oversees the safety of eggs when they’re in the shells, while the USDA is in charge of the eggs once they are out of their shells.

The Food and Drug Administration

The FDA enforces the safety of domestic and imported foods. It also monitors supplements, food labels, claims that corporations make about the benefits of products, and pharmaceutical drugs. Sometimes, the FDA must recall contaminated foods and remove them from the market to protect public health. For example, in 2011 contaminated peanut butter led to the recall of thousands of jars of a few popular brands.US Food and Drug Administration. “FDA 101: Product Recalls—From First Alert to Effectiveness Checks.” Last updated September 9, 2011. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm049070.htm. Recalls are almost always voluntary and often are requested by companies after a problem has been discovered. In rare cases, the FDA will request a recall. But no matter what triggers the removal of a product, the FDA’s role is to oversee the strategy and assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the recall. You will read more about this practice in Chapter 15 "Achieving Optimal Health: Wellness and Nutrition".

Video 14.2: FDA 101: Product Recalls

This video explains how the FDA recalls contaminated products to protect consumers. (click to see video)

The US Department of Agriculture

Headed by the Secretary of Agriculture, the USDA develops and executes federal policy on farming and food. This agency supports farmers and ranchers, protects natural resources, promotes trade, and seeks to end hunger in the United States and abroad. The USDA also assures food safety, and in particular oversees the regulation of meat, poultry, and processed egg products.

The Environmental Protection Agency

A third federal government agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also plays a role in the regulation of food. The EPA works to protect human health and the environment. Founded in 1970, the agency conducts environmental assessment, education, research, and regulation. The EPA also works to prevent pollution and protect natural resources. Two of its many regulatory practices in the area of agriculture include overseeing water quality and the use of pesticides.

Food Safety and Hazard Analysis

Government regulatory agencies utilize HACCP programs to ensure food safety. HACCP, or hazard analysis and critical control points, is a system used to identify potential hazards and prevent foodbourne illnesses. Some of the seven aspects of an HACCP program include identifying the points in a manufacturing process during which potential hazards could be introduced, establishing corrective actions, and maintaining record-keeping procedures. The USDA uses HACCP to regulate meat, while the FDA uses the seven-point system to monitor seafood and juice. In these industries, HACCP systems are used in all stages of production, processing, packaging, and distribution.US Food and Drug Administration. “Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP).” Last updated April 27, 2011. http://www.fda.gov/food/foodsafety/hazardanalysiscriticalcontrolpointshaccp/default.htm. Currently, the use of HACCP is voluntary for all other food products.

Food Additives

If you examine the label for a processed food product, it is not unusual to see a long list of added materials. These natural or synthetic substances are food additives and there are more than three hundred used during food processing today. The most popular additives are benzoates, nitrites, sulfites, and sorbates, which prevent molds and yeast from growing on food.How Stuff Works. “The Dangers of Food Additives.” Accessed October 5, 2011. http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/food-nutrition/facts/dangers-of-food -additives.htm.

Food additives are introduced in the processing stage for a variety of reasons. Some control acidity and alkalinity, while others enhance the color or flavor of food. Some additives stabilize food and keep it from breaking down, while others add body or texture. Table 14.1 lists some common food additives and their uses:

Table 14.1: Food Additives
Additive Reason for Adding
Beta-carotene Adds artificial coloring to food
Caffeine Acts as a stimulant
Citric acid Increases tartness to prevent food from becoming rancid
Dextrin Thickens gravies, sauces, and baking mixes
Gelatin Stabilizes, thickens, or texturizes food
Modified food starch Keeps ingredients from separating and prevents lumps
MSG Enhances flavor in a variety of foods
Pectin Gives candies and jams a gel-like texture
Polysorbates Blends oil and water and keep them from separating
Soy lecithin Emulsifies and stabilizes chocolate, margarine, and other items
Sulfites Prevent discoloration in dried fruits
Xanthan gum Thickens, emulsifies, and stabilizes dairy products and dressings

The Pros and Cons of Food Additives

The FDA works to protect the public from potentially dangerous additives. Passed in 1958, the Food Additives Amendment states that a manufacturer is responsible for demonstrating the safety of an additive before it can be approved. The Delaney Clause that was added to this legislation prohibits the approval of any additive found to cause cancer in animals or humans. However, most additives are considered to be “generally recognized as safe,” a status that is determined by the FDA and referred to as GRAS.

Food additives are typically included in the processing stage to improve the quality and consistency of a product. Many additives also make items more “shelf stable,” meaning they will last a lot longer on store shelves and can generate more profit for store owners. Additives can also help to prevent spoilage that results from changes in temperature, damage during distribution, and other adverse conditions. In addition, food additives can protect consumers from exposure to rancid products and food-bourne illnesses.

Food additives aren’t always beneficial, however. Some substances have been associated with certain diseases if consumed in large amounts. For example, the FDA estimates that sulfites can cause allergic reactions in 1 percent of the general population and in 5 percent of asthmatics. Similarly, the additive monosodium glutamate, which is commonly known as MSG, may cause headaches, nausea, weakness, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, and chest pain in some individuals.Sustainable Table. “The Issues: Additives.” Accessed October 10, 2011. http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/additives/#fn14.

The Effect of New Technologies

As mentioned earlier, new technology has had a tremendous effect on the food we eat and the customs and culture related to food consumption. For example, microwaves are used to reduce cooking time or to heat up leftover food. Refrigerators and freezers allow produce to travel great distances and last longer. On the extreme end of making food last longer, there is special food for astronauts that is appropriate for consumption in space. It is safe to store, easy to prepare in the low-gravity environment of a spacecraft, and contains balanced nutrition to promote the health of people working in space. In the military, soldiers consume Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs), which contain an entire meal in a single pouch.

Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified foods (also known as GM or GMO foods), are plants or animals that have undergone some form of genetic engineering. In the United States, much of the soybean, corn, and canola crop is genetically modified. The process involves the alteration of an organism’s DNA, which allows farmers to cultivate plants with desirable characteristics.Genomics.Energy.gov. “What Are Genetically Modified Foods?” Last modified November 5, 2008. http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml. For example, scientists could extract a gene that produces a chemical with antifreeze properties from a fish that lives in an arctic region (such as a flounder). They could then splice that gene into a completely different species, such as a tomato, to make it resistant to frost, which would enable farms to grow that crop year-round.Whitman, D. B. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” ProQuest Discovery Guides (April 2000). http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php.

Certain modifications can be beneficial in resisting pests or pesticides, improving the ripening process, increasing the nutritional content of food, or providing resistance to common viruses. Although genetic engineering has improved productivity for farmers, it has also stirred up debate about consumer safety and environmental protection. Possible side effects related to the consumption of GM foods include an increase in allergenicity, or tendencies to provoke allergic reactions. There is also some concern related to the possible transfer of the genes used to create genetically engineered foods from plants to people. This could influence human health if antibiotic-resistant genes are transferred to the consumer. Therefore, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other groups have encouraged the use of genetic engineering without antibiotic-resistance genes. Genetically modified plants may adversely affect the environment as well and could lead to the contamination of nongenetically engineered organisms.World Health Organization. “Food Safety: 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods.” © 2011. http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/.

Genetically modified foods fall under the purview of the EPA, the USDA, and the FDA. Each agency has different responsibilities and concerns in the regulation of GM crops. The EPA ensures that pesticides used for GM plants are safe for the environment. The USDA makes sure genetically engineered seeds are safe for cultivation prior to planting. The FDA determines if foods made from GM plants are safe to eat. Although these agencies act independently, they work closely together and many products are reviewed by all three.Whitman, D. B. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” ProQuest Discovery Guides (April 2000).

Video 14.3: Too Much Controversy Over Genetically Modified Foods?

(click to see video)

Food Enrichment and Fortification

Many foods are enriched or fortified to boost their nutritional value. Enrichment involves adding nutrients to restore those that were lost during processing. For example, iron and certain B vitamins are added to white flour to replace the nutrients that are removed in the process of milling wheat. Fortification is slightly different than enrichment and involves adding new nutrients to enhance a food’s nutritive value. For example, folic acid is typically added to cereals and grain products, while calcium is added to some orange juice.

The Health of the Population

Certain enrichment and fortification processes have been instrumental in protecting public health. For example, adding iodine to salt has virtually eliminated iodine deficiencies, which protects against thyroid problems. Adding folic acid to wheat helps increase intake for pregnant women, which decreases the risk of neural tube defects in their children. Also, vegans or other people who do not consume many dairy products are able to drink orange juice or soy milk that has been fortified with calcium to meet the daily recommendations. However, there is some concern that foods of little nutritive value will be fortified in an effort to improve their allure, such as soft drinks with added vitamins.

Key Takeaways

The food industry encompasses all aspects of food production: manufacturing, distribution, marketing, retail, regulation, and consumption. Food preservation and processing have a number of benefits including improving the quality of food products, making them more shelf-stable, and aiding the marketing and advertising of food. There are more than three hundred additives used during food processing today. Food preservation and processing also have some drawbacks, including potentially damaging the nutritive value of food. The cultivation and consumption of genetically modified foods are also highly controversial, with many people opposed to the genetic modification of crops. There are three key government agencies that regulate food in the United States: the US Department of Agriculture, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Discussion Starter

  1. Discuss the debate about the use of food additives, such as beta-carotene and citric acid. What are the benefits to using them? What are the drawbacks? Do you believe that food additives are more helpful or more harmful, and why?