Food & drink

Politically correct eating

Back in the 1960s and 1970s the slogan of American student activists was 'No war'. These days it's more likely to be 'Eat local' as students boycott national and global brands in favour of locally-grown produce that supports the livelihoods of local farmers and stops (they think) global warming, air and water pollution. Back in 2001, the University of Portland, which dishes up 22,000 meals a week, spent just 2% of its food budget with local suppliers. Now the figure is closer to 40% and two hundred other US universities have jumped on the buy-local trend (50% of them since 2001). Meanwhile, students are busy pushing organic, seasonal and food miles agendas and are delving into the principles and practices of catering giants like Sodexho Inc and Armamark Corp. Earlier this year students at the University of California successfully persuaded administrators to spend at least 10% of their food budget with local suppliers. However, while students are full of idealism for eco-eating they are also learning some of the hard practicalities of global economics. Sourcing local ingredients from a multitude of small suppliers is often time consuming and expensive compared to hiring a catering giant with a global supply chain and centralised buying. But, like they say, principals aren't really principals until they cost you money.
Ref: Time (US), 14 November 2005, 'What's cooking on campus', M. Roosevelt.

Natural light labelling and spray-on food

How do you label or brand raw ingredients? Historically, the options have been by using stickers or ink stamps. But now an inventor called Greg Drouillard has created a way to label fruit and vegetables using a laser to etch information onto the skins of produce. The resultant 'label' (or 'food tattoo') is both organic and edible and the information displayed can include brand names, date of harvest, name of the farmer and location of the farm. In theory it could also include basic recipe information and an eat-by-date. Meanwhile, also in the US, a chef called David Burke has invented spray-on food. Each small bottle contains a liquid that mimics the flavour of 18 popular high-calorie foods like chocolate, pesto and fudge. Simply spray a shot of bacon on top of your scrambled eggs, or spray marshmallow on top of a rice cake, and your stomach and your tastebuds think they're getting the real deal.
Ref: Time (US), 28 November 2005, 'Inventions of the year'. See also

Back to where it started

In England a proposed ban on smoking in pubs could be a catalyst for innovation. The new law says that you cannot smoke in pubs that serve food. But there is nothing to stop publicans physically separating their drinking establishments into two halves - one that serves food and drink, and another that serves drink and smokes. This has happened before. Back in Victorian times bars were spilt into two: a 'public' bar for the lower classes and a saloon or lounge bar for the more well to do. Each even had its own door (to prevent the two segregated 'classes' coming into contact with each other) and different prices for the same pint of beer. This was stopped by the police in the 1960s and 1970s because they found it difficult keeping an eye on two rooms instead of one. But the idea is making a comeback. Sam Smith's, a regional brewer, is converting some of its Victorian pubs back to the two-room format. So what's the lesson here? First, it's often worth looking at the history of a particular product or practice if you are trying to do something 'new'. Second, rather than simply focusing on product innovation, drinks companies should think about how and where their products are consumed and how new practices could be introduced.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 17 September 2005, 'Return of the gin palace'.
Links: Beer with added nicotine to avoid smoking bans in pubs (Germany) and drink pouring trends and innovations (eg

Organic fish

It might like sound like a joke (like organic water and organic wood), but organic or 'green' fish looks like it will be a major trend in the future. The idea is that most wild-captured fish is caught using methods that harm surrounding eco-systems and catch species other than those intended. A solution is to certify fisheries that only catch certain fish in certain areas with certain fishing methods. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has started to do just this in the UK and eco-labelled fish is starting to show up in major UK supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose. In some ways this is just a labelling exercise, but it does at least give consumers the opportunity to vote with their shopping baskets about how food is produced. Currently around 4% of the world's wild-captured fish are 'green' but this is set to increase significantly. For example, Unilever has agreed to increase its use of green fish from around 5% to approximately 30% in the future.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 8 October 2005, 'Sea Change'.

A balanced score card for wine

In America an 18-year-old can vote, get married or die for his country, but he (or she) can't drink a glass of wine. American history contains some profound influences on what and how Americans drink, but when it comes to wine there is one man in particular that affects what the whole world drinks. Robert M. Parker Jr is the world's most famous wine critic, largely because he invented the 100-point scoring system. There is even an adjective in France - Parkerise - which means to make a wine that will appeal to the influential critic - a wine that is bold and full-bodied. It some ways the 100-point system is a good thing, because it helps people to tell the difference between good and bad wine. However, despite giving the appearance of science and objectivity, the scoring system is actually subjective. One man's taste now largely dictates what winemakers produce and, as a consequence, what the rest of the world can drink. Are people getting tired of this? Probably not at a mass-market level, but at the top end there seems to be a growing feeling that fine wine-making should be art, not science. The French - who once famously lost a blind tasting to America - would certainly agree. Hence the French focus on 'terroir' - the precise mix of local geography, climate and soil that makes one wine taste different to another. Looking into the future, this is probably a debate (and a practice) that will spread into most other food areas.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 10 September 2005, 'Supersipping in the superstate'.