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Building a Food Future

Dominique Saint Malo | January 10, 2024

Food | The Originate Initiative

From AI-powered product analysis to 3D-printed food, significant technological innovations are redefining food manufacturing.

For a look into how innovation in food manufacturing will affect our food supply today and in the future, Hormel Foods asked Ithaca College Assistant Professor Dominique Saint Malo to share her insights on developments in the industry. Note: Hormel Foods does not endorse companies mentioned in this report.

The challenges we face in feeding the world’s population are immense by any measure. The United Nations predicts that nearly 600 million people around the globe will face chronic undernourishment by 2030. Climate change threatens reliable farming conditions, the population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, and consistent urban expansion foretells a scarcity of fresh produce. How do we feed more mouths with limited resources and finite agricultural land?

New tools and technologies are taking center stage. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics hold the promise to improve efficiencies and boost yields. They also have the potential to maintain food safety while improving food quality.

AI: The Buzz of 2023

Perhaps the buzzword of all buzzwords in 2023 was “AI.” But Artificial intelligence isn’t just a catchy phrase. With remarkable speed, the technology has permeated the realms of art, healthcare, education and food production and manufacturing. Although no company can attest to having fully adopted AI, it is already clear that the technology holds great promise across every step of food production.

For instance, AI can enhance crop management by precisely monitoring factors like soil conditions, weather and pest threats, increasing yields and reducing resource use. AI-powered predictive maintenance can improve the efficiency of machinery and processing equipment. Quality control systems can be boosted with systems trained to swiftly identify contaminants or anomalies in production lines. AI can also improve supply-chain management, optimizing inventory, transportation and distribution to reduce food spoilage and waste. AI’s integration across the food production chain holds the promise of boosting productivity, reducing waste, improving safety and ensuring a more sustainable and resilient food system.

AI-powered data analysis also allows food manufacturers to develop products tailored to their target demographics, and even helps them prevent large-scale food waste. One startup is using the world’s largest sensory database combined with machine learning to help food and beverage producers optimize products depending on their target demographic. Factors like age, gender, smoking habits and general preferences vary globally; what appeals to the masses in China does not necessarily appeal to the masses in Ecuador. AI allows companies to zero in on these diverse markets.

Scientists are also using AI to examine oil and fat rancidity. When foods are oxidized, or exposed to air for too long, food begins to go rancid. Antioxidants can counteract some of this process, and researchers are using machine-learning algorithms to determine exactly which antioxidants can help extend the shelf life of food products, the precise amount to use, and when exactly to add them to the product to keep it fresher longer.

“Testing millions of mixtures of antioxidants at different rations would take decades,” says Dr. Carlos D. Garcia, chemistry professor at Clemson University and one of the head researchers on this project. “A computer can run those simulations very efficiently and evaluate that number of mixtures in a few minutes.”

Full adoption of AI in food manufacturing will come when it proves cost efficient. “Business conversation drives things first with AI, with sustainability outcomes a nice extra benefit,” says Maria Pearman, principal and beverage practice leader with the consulting firm GHJ. “A lot of these technologies are allowing entities to operate in a more efficient manner, which means better use of dollars, time and resources. And all those things add up to a lighter environmental footprint.” In the meantime, other automation techniques and upgrades are being adopted into the mainstream.

Automation in Development

Hormel Foods has long been at the cutting edge of technology in food manufacturing. Two decades ago, the company pioneered High Pressure Processing, which uses increased atmospheric pressure to kill microbes and inactivate viruses without the use of heat. Using pressure instead of heat allows nutrients and flavor to remain intact. The company has continued to explore the use of the process with a variety of foods.

Across the industry, companies and startups are experimenting. The prospect of 3D-printed foods is less common, but nonetheless exciting. Companies like SugarLab, which calls itself “the world’s first true digital bakery,” are researching 3D-printed foods. SugarLab uses dehydrated fruit, mushrooms, plant protein, flour and spice to develop new recipes for their custom-built CURRANT 3D machine. The restaurant Food Ink offers 3D printing on its dishes, boasting fine cuisine that combines “art, philosophy, and tomorrow’s technologies.” The furniture, utensils and food are all 3D-printed. Beyond these 3D-printing applications, though, printing everyday foods is still largely experimental.

In production facilities, recent advances in robotics enhance worker safety and improve yields. Using machines, facilities can now do things like preview 3D-modeled products and program necessary changes ahead of production. They can tell a machine, like the MPBS ProSaw, how much meat to cut, and in which shape and in any particular order. As more programmable technology becomes more widely adopted, there will be little the technician can’t program the machine to do.

Innovation for the Future

Sustainability, safety, speed and automation have always been key elements in the quest for efficient production. Rising to the challenge, each generation of farmers and food producers has pioneered new technologies and practices that have radically increased yields, reduced waste, and strengthened the dependability of the food supply. For this generation, the challenge will be no different. To feed the growing population with limited resources, we must never stop innovating.