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The major goals of the modern food industry are centered around enhancing the edibility of foods, providing enough nutrients, and extending the durability of foods by using extensive preservation techniques with the sole aim of generating profits for both their shareholders and the company itself.

In a bid to achieve these goals, the technologies used have over time evolved through innovative processes over the years. The challenges faced by the modernized food industry during its expansion in the 20th century gave rise to the incorporation of these technologies in their manufacturing processes. The challenges included the need to extend food stability for transportation purposes, enhance textures and flavors of food for consumer delight and the reduction of pathogen presence in food for safety purposes.

Food Production and Preservation in the 18th Century

The most prominent development in food production in the 18th Century must be The Agricultural Revolution, where Britain and Europe experienced an unprecedented rise in crop productivity and a significant increase in livestock. Some major factors contributing to the development included mechanization and investment in other technical improvements such as the system of crop rotation.

Mechanization was a huge contributor to the rise in crop yield. Andrew Meikle invented the first threshing machine in 1786. The machines removed the seeds from the stalks and husks, remarkably reducing the labor needed for yielding grains. The Dutch plow was also widely used as a replacement for northern European plow. Since the Dutch plow was lighter but effective, fewer oxen were needed to pull it. Another important machine was the seed drill. It was introduced to Italy in the 16th century but was only widely used in the 18th century after Jethro Tull refined it in 1701. Tull’s drill ensured that seeds could be sowed efficiently and precisely in the field. It greatly minimized the number of wasted seeds as well as the use of labor.

Other technological practices in agriculture also included the systems of crop rotation. Crop rotation is the practice of strategically planning the order of cultivation of different crops in the same field. By alternating different plants, this method allowed nutrients in the soil to replenish and improve soil structure, increasing land productivity.

With more crop yield, people also came up with methods for food preservation. Apart from traditional methods of drying and salting, canning was invented in 1795. It became a popular method to store meats, fruits, and vegetables. A special method used for meat preservation was brining. After soaking the meat in salt water and putting it in covered jars, it could be stored for months. Smoking is another method used then to preserve meat. In the 18th century, it was common for farms to have smokehouses, where people would hang meat and dry them by filling the room with smoke.

A Turning Point in the 20th Century

Food-borne pathogens, the reason for the massive outbreaks of life-threatening illnesses in the early 1900s gave rise to the enactment of food safety regulations by the FDA and USDA to ensure that the food consumed by the general public was safe to eat. A popular case which resulted in 70 deaths, was the discovery of Streptococcus in raw milk in 1911 and 1922. Another was in 1919 – the outbreak of botulism as a result of contaminated canned olives and in 1924, the Typhi bacteria outbreak which was a result of contaminated oysters.

The regulatory reforms developed around this period required that stakeholders in the food industry include proper instructions for cooking on their packaging or thermally process their produce before consumption by the public. The principles developed by Louis Pasteur in 1864 which included the investigation of pasteurization processes in order to reduce the microbiological population of pathogens. This thermal processing advancement gave companies the opportunity to package their products in cans or jars for a long period of time without them expiring.

A major challenge that bothered the budding food industry was the spoilage of food which led to a high number of wasted resources and efforts. Freezing and refrigerating technologies were then developed to curtail this worrisome challenge and preserve food for a longer period of time. As these technologies became affordable for the average homeowner, food manufacturers began developing perishable food which could easily be refrigerated and consumed within a short period of time. Despite the fact that a number of households were able to afford refrigerators, it was still considered expensive hence preservation and manufacturing techniques were directed towards the production of foods that could be stored for a long while without facing the risk of pathogen growth or change in product palatability. The techniques included the addition of antioxidants, moisture-reducing ingredients, disinfectants, and chemical preservatives to ensure these foods have extended shelf life.

The aforementioned technologies became crucial for the transition of small-scale food manufacturers and companies to international organizations. The ability to preserve food for a very long time afforded manufacturers the opportunity to produce large quantities of cheap foods that would have long shelf lives. This enabled them to produce, store and transport these products across nations without fear of them getting worse before getting to the retail consumer. Storage technology wasn’t enough to keep foods at the level of quality desired by the consumer as thermal processing methods that were used to maintain the safety of foods destroyed their flavors. As a result, an entire sub-industry was created to develop technical procedures for the development of not only safe foods but also appetizing ones in order for the industry to maintain its market target. The expanding petroleum industry in the mid-1900s aided this research as the flavors were either synthetically developed by using the by-products of petrochemicals or extracted naturally as essentials from natural products.

Modern Preservation Techniques – Low Cost with Negative Effects

Given the development of modern preservation techniques and food ingredients, better, new flavored products that did not require refrigeration became available for all and sundry. The enzymatic conversion of starches to simple sugars which gave rise to low-cost sugar syrups gave manufacturers the opportunity to extend the shelf life of their products and improve the taste of their produce. Another flavor enhancer, salt – which was harvested from industrial salt-mining operations were also used judiciously in the preservation of foods. The growth of oil crop and large-scale oil extraction techniques led to an abundance of food oils that could either be included in products or used to fry them in order to improve their texture and flavor. Sugar, salt, and oil, therefore, became the main ingredients used to produce a wide number of products to satisfy the ever-growing demand for tasty, yet low-cost foods in the Western world.

Over time, these nutrient-deficient food products were discovered to have negative effects on consumer health when consumed incessantly over a long period of time. Researchers and medical practitioners began to notice a connection between the rise of certain diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, etc. and the consumption of certain foods. These diseases became a challenge to the medical community as they began topping the list of the deadliest diseases in the United States. As a result, regulatory bodies and health organizations have constantly developed reforms to promote the consumption of fresher, healthier foods in lieu of low-nutrient foods.

Technology of Today and Its Impact on Food Production

Internet of Things, IoT is another present technology taking every industry by storm. Its impact in fishing, deforestation, animal farming, etc. cannot be underestimated.  The shortcomings of this technology, despite how powerful, is still prone to hacking and can this only be thoroughly prevented if the traffic is adequately encrypted, with a secure paid VPN or a secure Wi-Fi network.

There is an ongoing paradigm change in the food industry as many corporations have begun acquiring smaller organizations focused on the manufacturing of healthy, organic and natural foods in a bid to increase the number of their product offerings to the food market. The last decade has also seen high-tech food ventures receive a lot of investment from the global startup community, framing these ventures with mission statements backed by environmental and social welfare. This then creates a wave of reliance on advanced scientific fields of synthetic biology, proteomics, and tissue engineering by consumer-responsive companies in order to cause lower environmental impact when manufacturing their products. This would involve an outright avoidance of the conventional means of food design and agricultural methods.

Without a doubt, food technology will continually evolve in a direction that is strongly linked with the complex interaction between market forces.

About the Author:
Brad Smith is a technology expert at TurnOnVPN, a non-profit promoting a safe, secure, and censor-free internet. He writes about his dream for free internet and unravels the horror behind big techs.