A recent Food Marketing Institute (FMI) survey reports that consumers are changing the way they shop not only because of recent foodborne outbreaks, but also due to rising energy costs. Unfortunately for the food industry, the survey also says the number of consumers completely or somewhat satisfied with the safety of supermarket food declined from 82 percent last year to 66 percent this year, the lowest point in almost two decades.

With gas prices soaring well above $3 a gallon, the outlook is not so good for the average American household budget. According to the FMI report, consumers said they will cook more meals at home, purchase more store brands and buy more canned, frozen or boxed goods as opposed to freshly prepared foods. Many are adopting a dual food shopping strategy: purchasing dry goods at discount stores and buying other goods at conventional supermarkets.

While the pages of Food Engineering are devoted to innovations in machinery and software, the evolving role of the food engineer means being informed not only about customer needs, but also of consumer needs.

Engineers at Kraft, for example, are focusing on new products such as Oscar Mayer Deli Creations, a complete meal assembled from several of the company’s products. While it may be an engineering nightmare to produce, this is the direction many manufacturers are taking to better serve customers and consumers alike.

Anyone who has watched the evening news knows that corn is the culprit behind some of the nation’s current economic woes. Not only is this commodity in demand for ethanol production, it is now causing food prices to increase because it is the main source of food for dairy cows, cattle and hens, says an ABC News report. Many farmers may shift fields now growing crops such as wheat and soy to increase corn production, causing food prices to soar even higher.

Not my problem, you may think? If consumers stop buying “luxury” items such as Oreos, M&Ms and Chunky Monkey to shave a few dollars off the grocery bill each month, it will be your problem.  You will be asked to squeeze out even more plant efficiency.

Improved food safety and plant efficiency are not special projects; they are a normal part of the food engineer’s job. Seeing the big picture from farm to fork may just make the difference in improving production.