As a new century dawns, the Internet, e-commerce and other trends are adding complexity to challenges that food processors have faced for years.

Food manufacturing has undergone significant changes in the past decade, with technologies as diverse as aseptic processing, microwaveable foods and hot fill, fresh-cut produce virtually changing the face of food processing. But what will be the hot technology of the new century?

To what extent will irradiation be used to ensure a safe food supply? Will genetically modified foods become commonly accepted? What role will the Internet play in food distribution? These are just a few of the issues facing food processors in the year 2000.

"Changing demographics and changing demand among consumers will drive product development at the processor level. These changes will create a demand for machinery and technology to meet consumer needs," said Henry Morris, vice president of operations for Con Agra Foods, while speaking at the annual conference of the Meat and Poultry Council of the Food Processing Machinery and Supplies Association (FPM&SA).

"Consumers who are moving into the older age brackets are demanding food that comes in smaller portions, food that is healthful and food that comes in packages that are easy to open."

Predicting the future is probably better left to soothsayers, but if the past few decades have taught us anything, it is that the food industry isn't likely to fall short of innovative methods to meet consumer demand for convenience. "I think the major achievement I've seen in the food industry is its response to the consumer needs for convenient, fast meal preparations," said Diane Wolf, director of operations for Kraft Foods. "The variety of products that are available in all forms--fresh, frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable--to meet the needs of time-stretched consumers is truly significant. Grab-and-go packaging for all product forms has been a win for consumers and manufacturers alike."

The coming years promise changes in the world of food processing that are equally exciting. The 20th century has taught consumers that if they want it, it will indeed come. "One can anticipate that foods of the new millennium will reflect trends established in the mid- to late 1990s," said Christine Boisrobert, applications development manager of Air Liquide, Houston.

Among them is the desire for "convenience without compromising on taste, freshness and nutrition, as illustrated by the tremendous growth of the Home Meal Replacement (HMR) market," she said. "One can anticipate this trend is here to stay and that food processors will continue to turn to MAP to reduce product returns, improve production scheduling, increase inventory control, expand distribution range and--most importantly--satisfy consumer demands for products with more fresh-like characteristics."

It is also likely that producers will become more involved in custom products to satisfy consumer demand. "I believe that product customization, or personalization, is the key food processing development facing us all," Wolf said. "How do we take manufacturing and supply chain processes that were designed for high-volume outputs and convert them to short runs for highly customized products? Along with changeover technologies for both packaging and processing, the ability to use recipe management tools to run small quantities of product will help to satisfy that demand."

These tools will become increasingly important as more custom products are developed, Wolf said. In much the same way that a consumer can pick a calcium-added food off the shelf, "I can envision the day in the future when there will be sub-lines of juices for children, women, older adults, diabetics and the weight-conscious to meet their special dietary needs," she elaborated. "As these products proliferate, will consumers be able to customize their juice blend via the Internet, so they can order orange juice with calcium, foliate and iron to their desired sweetness, and have it delivered to their door with their grocery order. And how will manufacturers shorten their cycle time so they can respond to quantities of one within a reasonable time frame?" she asked.

Another question food processors face is how they will actually customize their products. Will genetic engineering of food play a role in the process? And if so, will consumers accept it? "Certainly, the genetic engineering of food is the biggest public issue facing the industry," said William Friend, group vice president of J.R. Simplot Food Group, fruit and vegetable processor. "The jury is still out about whether we will have to differentiate GMO products from non-GMO products. There are opportunities in nutraceuticals that will add value to our offerings, but the question is whether it will be accepted."

If product customization is to succeed, there must also be a supply-chain structure in place to accommodate it. "The consolidation throughout the supply chain, from manufacturers to distributors to grocery chains, has had a profound influence," Friend said. "It sets up opportunities to do some of the things that were promised by ECR/EFR initiatives but never achieved. As our industry begins to apply the supply-chain technologies that we see in the computer and auto sectors, there will be significant opportunity to reduce costs and reach higher levels of service."

These opportunities will be essential in accommodating the proliferation of new products and product sub-lines in an efficient manner. "The linkage of systems from ingredients and packaging suppliers to the manufacturing plant, distribution network and customer, must be seamless, without 'piles of inventory' at each interface point," Wolf said. "For both manufacturers and retailers, the impact of Internet food suppliers on the supply chain has not yet been fully felt. But one can anticipate that the impact on current distribution networks could be significant."

Weaving the web

The need for connectivity is where the Internet will have the most significant impact on the food industry, according to experts. Industry members are in the learning phase about some aspects of the Internet and in the infancy stage about others. ?The food industry is learning how to market via the Internet, but any shift in distribution and manufacturing practices has not yet begun,? Wolf said. ?High-end specialized food products have been the first to gain acceptance for purchase and delivery via the net, and more mainstream food products may not be far behind. I think the Internet will [become significantly more important] over the next 10 years because it has the potential to completely reset the relationship between manufacturer, customer and consumer.?

But will consumers purchase groceries over the Internet? ?There are really two different models at work in Internet food shopping,? Friend said. ?Specialty Web sites featuring high-priced luxury foods will follow the same model we see on the Web today with books and electronics. In those cases, the perceived and sometimes real value of the product can support the shipping costs from a central distribution center. But companies attempting to provide ?everyday? groceries over the net will have to provide distribution locally.? Friend noted that Albertson?s has put up a hybrid store near the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., and has met with success because of the store?s proximity to PC-savvy consumers.?I don?t think the traditional retailers are getting much credit for their ? experiments, but they have the buying power and the marketing savvy to ultimately win out.?

According to Wolf, food industry professionals are using the Internet more frequently to gather information, and intercompany intranets to share information among fellow employees. ?I?ve seen a major reduction in the amount of paper generated within our company,? she noted. ?Instead, information is posted [on the intranet] and people access it when they need it. And e-mail has replaced phone calls by at least 50 percent. With respect to doing our jobs, I think we?ve seen the biggest impact from the Internet in the past two to three years. But use of the Internet as a sales and marketing tool for has just begun.?

Safer technologies

As consumers demand fresher foods and as processors transport the foods over greater distances, food safety issues will become even more critical. Although consumers expect a safe food supply, the jury is still out regarding some of the technologies--such as irradiaton--that are being created to ensure food safety. "It appears that we will continue down the road toward lower and lower pathogen tolerances. If that road leads to pathogen-free products, then irradiation will be the most important technology," Friend said. "Again, it's a question of acceptance by consumers."

"Irradiation or alternative "clean room" technologies may some day impact the need for frozen foods," Friend continued. "If we migrate toward irradiated foods for pathogen-free requirements, then preservation methods, especially freezing, may become unnecessary for certain products. Pathogen-free manufacturing could be a precursor to more refrigerated if not shelf-stable products."

Plant floor of the future

In recent years, automation has repeatedly appeared among the top 10 trends in Food Engineering's annual Food Manufacturing Trends survey. As flexible manufacturing increases in importance, automation will be key for assembly operations where components are constantly changing to accommodate increasing levels of flexibility.

"Think of Oscar Mayer Lunchables and the many variations of that product that are available," Wolf said. "The size, weight and shape of the components continue to change, but automation of the assembly must be in place to profitably produce this type of product."

Automation must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes without costly downtime and reprogramming, Wolf added. Change parts must not be a requirement, and the line itself must be flexible enough to change within prescribed limits. Packaging equipment components and infeeds may need to be on wheels, so that packaging lines can be configured and reconfigured over the course of a sanitation cycle.

In addition to flexible manufacturing, recruiting and retaining quality employees continues to be a challenge among processors. "A key issue is finding and keeping manufacturing employees, particularly hourly workers," Wolf said. "Many manufacturing plants are seeing high turnover among their workforce, and open jobs going unfilled because of the overall labor shortage in the U.S."

Looking at the plant floor of the future, processors are looking for technologies that will reduce cost. "On the packaging line, for instance, can you down-gauge the film, and still maintain the necessary properties?" Wolf asked. "As on-line print technology improves, what can be printed on line to support the reduction of packaging material inventory while still reflecting unique product being produced? Can you move beyond on-line case printing and print cartons or film on line?"

Along with the new century comes a new set of problems-- and new tools that hopefully will lead to quick and effective solutions.

Sidebar: Preserving the future

With demand growing for convenient, fresh and healthy foods, there is a considerable interest in identifying preservation technologies that can improve food safety, said Dr. James Yuan, head of food research for Air Liquide, an industrial gas supplier.

In light of growing concern about chlorinated organic compounds from chlorine usage, the recent GRAS self-affirmation of ozone (O3) as a disinfectant for foods (Electric Power Research Institute, 1997) has sparked a renewed interest in this powerful oxidizer. "Some benefits of using ozone include its ability to efficiently self-destruct, leaving only environmentally safe molecular oxygen (O2).

As a result, there is no problem with chemical residues remaining on the surface of treated products," said Christine Boisrobert, applications development manager at Air Liquide.The future remains optimistic for ozone adoption in food plants that routinely recycle water.

"Benefits will include a reduction in water consumption and microbial buildup, as well as better prevention of microbial cross-contamination," Boisrobert said. "As water availability becomes an issue in certain states, such as California and Florida, ozone will be of help to those food companies that are under pressure to recycle water in their facilities, reduce water usage and cut costs for wastewater disposal."

Air Liquide is also developing new technologies for MAP processing. "Modified Atmosphere Processing (MAP I) and Dynamic MAP (MAP II), both new technologies being developed by Air Liquide, will focus on food quality and food safety," Yuan said. "Modified Atmosphere Processing (MAP I) uses gases or gas mixtures as a primary processing means or aid in eliminating or reducing harmful bacteria (pathogens) in food. It will help customers to address food-safety-related issues, and ensure safe eating for American consumers."