By Douglas Woodruff, Director of Research & Development – JBT Diversified Food & Health Division

The ongoing ramifications of the pandemic are still being felt across industries, including in food manufacturing, and there will be plenty of new and ongoing trends to expect over the next 12 months and beyond. Evolving consumer demands and ESG requirements will continue to impact the industry’s commitments to sustainability and will accelerate the rise of plant-based products. We’ll also experience new and increasingly innovative solutions to address widespread labor shortages and the shifting balance between food service and retail products.

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Despite the challenges presented by this pandemic, the food manufacturing industry is well positioned to help its customers adapt through cutting-edge technological solutions. Below, we take a closer look at these four trends that are primed to dominate the food manufacturing realm this coming year.

Commitment to sustainability

Sustainability has been a top industry and consumer trend for many years, and this is certain to continue in 2022. As positive climate action becomes increasingly urgent with each passing year, consumers are becoming more educated on how their personal decisions and those of the food industry are impacting the global environment. This is causing manufacturers to replace fossil fuel-based energy sources with renewable, electricity-based energy.

Other sustainability trends we can expect to continue and even expand across food industry sectors include changes in packaging (recyclable, biodegradable, or that significantly reduce plastic use), reducing water consumption in food processing and developing more sustainable detergent and cleaning solutions for end-products and equipment.

The rise of plant-based

Another trend that will continue to blossom are plant-based products. Plant-based diets have increased 300% for Americans in the last 15 years, and plant-based retail sales had an overall growth rate of 27% from 2019 to 2020, and we can expect similar or even greater statistics moving forward.

As health and nutrition continue to drive consumer desires and decisions, manufacturing technologies will need to adapt accordingly. Many solutions are already in place to address the increased demand and production of these products, but it will be important for manufacturers to adapt to their customers’ unique internal processes, the type of product being developed and the means of processing them.

As these new processes scale up, specialists will work with customers to transform existing batch processes to efficient continuous processes and bring their well-established food science expertise for conventional foods to this new technology.

Increased IoT connectivity and automation

No matter the industry, implementation of new digital technologies will likely be one of the top trends entering a new year, and 2022 will be no different for food manufacturing.

Our industry has historically been conservative in adopting new technology solutions, but all sectors vary in how they introduce and apply systems. Industry 4.0 tools will continue to grow across the industry as they enable processors to optimize workflow, remove production bottlenecks, improve margins and more.

One trend we can expect in the near term is increased automation. Food manufacturing is one of many industries facing labor shortages that stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting workforce priorities and more. This has caused immense stress on technology solutions providers to develop machinery that will help customers continue to meet their goals, but with fewer employees on-site. Expanded roles for automation, such as robotics, will be key to mitigate the shortage of human labor and enhance process efficiency and end-products for producers.

Balance between food service and retail

Consumer behavior has changed dramatically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the food industry as a whole must continue to adjust as demand evolves. At the beginning, the food service sector took a dive and retail shot up in many cases with the little demand for food that typically supplied restaurants, but high demand for grocery stores. In fact, retail food sales increased by 57% in the first week of the pandemic in March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Since then, consumers have returned to the food service businesses, but evolved in the way they engage with this sector. Sixty-four percent of consumers do not plan to return to their pre-pandemic habits of dining in restaurants. This has resulted in 61% of consumers ordering takeout or delivery at least once per week, which is up from 29% one year ago.

While the balance between these two markets continues to evolve, this will be an ongoing challenge for the food manufacturing industry with the continued fluctuations of the pandemic and in consumer preferences throughout 2022.

Douglas Woodruff is a professional engineer and has worked as an engineer and an innovation leader in the food and packaging industries for almost 30 years in both North America and Europe. He currently leads the R&D program for JBT’s Diversified Food & Health Division.