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Today I was interviewed by a wonderful individual working on a study for the National Science Foundation. While we talked about a wide range to topics going on in the food industry, her main focus was on sustainability in packaging and more importantly, what were the drivers pushing the industry towards greater acceptance of sustainability. In fact, we were in general agreement that while younger, more eco-conscious consumers provided the initial spark, it was when the industry itself saw opportunity (opportunity to reduce waste and unnecessary costs in packaging which could even add to the bottom line while yes, delivering less waste to landfills) that things really got moving in that direction.

Of course, this is not news to most food industry professionals in 2022, but that’s not where I’m going with this. It occurred to me that when I came to the industry in the late 90’s, consumer trends were driven largely by what producers decided the consumer wanted. Back then, getting authentic Chilean hot sauce was near impossible until my next trip to Chile or until family members came to visit. Either way we would load up on the tasty bottles and ration them the next year or so. Now, we can buy it online or even find it locally at one of the Hispanic supermarket in Northern Virginia, for just a few dollars. No hoarding needed!

This is even more obvious when it comes to the wide variety of flavors and products available in the supermarket. For the last 20 years, food manufacturers have scoured the world looking for that next big thing. From quinoa to sriracha, kale to Greek yogurt, kombucha to energy drinks, it doesn’t take long for that product to become the next big thing. So, who’s responsible for that Tish asked me.

I told her that if I could figure that question out, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here in my office now. Our industry has enough product development professionals doing great work to decide the next great new product but obviously that requires a lot of hit and miss (more miss than hit actually). But I think it goes beyond that. The younger generations (Millennials and Gen-Z) have shown an incredible openness to new products and experiences. On top of that they are much quicker to share what they find online, spreading the word like wildfire on things such as avocado toast. And while I don’t think I’ll ever understand why anyone takes pictures of their food, for example, I can’t deny the pull that young consumers have on our industry. When you pair that with those same talented product developers and food manufacturers willing to make a change, you see that progress highlighted on the store shelves every time you go to the grocery store.
Who drives this industry? We all do, and while we don’t always drive in a straight line (in fact I think those days are long over), it’s a fun ride.

Andy Drennan, FPSA SVP