Food Allergies & the Future of the Foodservice Industry

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

On a recent Transatlantic crossing with one of the major cruise lines, I had extensive conversations with the foodservice staff and chefs, mostly because I have a gluten intolerance, which most people would think of as a food allergy. I found this exchange to be quite interesting, and met with, and offered my thoughts on the future of food allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, and preferences to the Manager of Hotel Services, the Assistant Food Manager, the Executive Chef, and two of the Chefs de Cuisine.

It will come as no surprise to anyone in the foodservice industry that they told me that the number of food issues (which, for convenience, I will call “allergies”, even though they are not all allergies) has multiplied over the past few years. Ten years ago, for instance, this particular cruise line said that out of 1800 passengers, they might have had a single sheet with a list of those people who had food allergies. Today, they have anywhere from 5- to 10 times that many, and the number keeps growing. Before the cruise, I had spoken with the on-shore administrative staff on this issue, and warned them that the number of food issues would continue to multiply, and that they should prepare for them. I found their response disappointing: they said that when it happened, they would respond.

The difference between reacting and responding

Actually, what they meant was that they would react, not that they would respond. A reaction is what you do when you are struggling to keep up with a trend. Responding is what you do when you’ve anticipated the trend, and have a plan prepared to deal with developments. The shipboard staff had no such hesitations, in part because I told them that they should prepare for the day when all of their guests had to be treated as if they had unique food allergies. This raised some eyebrows, and they asked how that could possibly happen.

My reply was that as we learn more about each individual’s metabolism through the decoding of their genome, we will, over time, be able to outline an optimal diet for the health of each individual. This is an emerging development, and one that not many people are familiar with, so let me elaborate a bit.

The Human Genome Project completed the decoding of the very first person’s genome after an expenditure of billions of dollars, an international research effort, and decades of research. Today, in 2010, decoding an individual’s genome would cost about $10,000 and take a few of days. Within 10 years, decoding your genome will cost $1,000 or less, and within 15 years it will cost around $100, and will be done in hours, not days. Moreover, these estimates may be conservative. If I’m wrong, I expect to be wrong on the high side, not by being overly optimistic.

Once we can decode anyone’s full genome at nominal cost, the real work begins, because we will, with the proper analytical tools and background data, be able to start correlating what environmental factors help and hurt us, ranging from specific kinds of plastics in containers, to new chemicals in our air and water supply, to the real nutritional advantage of organic apples vs. ordinary apples to each specific person. This will take time, but fortunately, it won’t have to be done for each individual; data collected on the effects of specific foods will be tied to specific genes, and then the results will be easily translated into what foods are best and worst for each individual. This won’t happen all at once, but will be a progressive issue that will emerge over time, slowly at first, but then with rapidly accelerating speed.

The rate of change in food preferences

As a result, very little will seem to change over the next 5 years (except that the number of food allergies will continue to increase). Within 10 years, we will begin to see the effects of individual genomics on commercial foodservice operations, with two or three times as many clients expressing food preferences, with many people actively embracing some foods as well as merely avoiding others. Within 20 years, foodservice operations will have to change beyond all recognition to cope with the avalanche of food allergies and preferences. Indeed, a restaurant, when accepting a reservation, either by email, phone, or other electronic means, will also routinely accept lists of positive and negative food preferences for most guests. Moreover, the length of such lists will continue to grow beyond the next 20 years, both in terms of the number of customers providing them, and in the range of specific foods listed.

Of course, this change will be slowed by people’s taste preferences. Even today, with our relatively primitive knowledge about food and nutrition, people often eats what tastes good rather than what they know is good for them.

Why this can be good news

Any foodservice operation that cannot cope with this breadth and depth of detail will become uncompetitive; patrons will go where they can get what they want or need. And this brings me back to the discussions I had with the foodservice people on my cruise. The Manager of Hotel Services, once I’d told her where I thought we were going, looked shocked, and said, “Coping with that would be enormously expensive!” I smiled at her, and replied, “No, you’re looking at this in precisely the wrong way, because you’re thinking of your own operations in isolation. What do you think will happen to every single one of your competitors?”

“Well, I guess they’ll experience the same kinds of changes,” she replied.

“Right,” I said, “And that means that if you’re better prepared to cope with this, then this becomes not a negative, but a competitive edge that you can use to gain market share! This is an advantage, not a problem – but only if you’re prepared for it. However, you want to prepare for it, but not roll it out until you see the demand for it materializing. Otherwise, you could be too early into the market, and being too early can be as costly as being too late.

“But you should definitely be thinking and planning on how you can do this starting right now, because it’s going to be a major, wrenching change to re-organize your entire food preparation process to cope with this. If you don’t start thinking about this now, you won’t be ready in time.”

Interestingly, the food preparation people got that right away. As for the on-shore administrative staff, well, I don’t know if they got it at all. I think they were thinking of it only in terms of extra costs, and not in terms of competitive advantage.

Two personal asides to this: Because I was a guest volunteering thoughts and insights, and not a paid consultant, I’m not sure how seriously they took my comments. Thomas Paine’s remark seems appropriate here: “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.” They would probably have listened more carefully if I charged them big bucks. But my wife and I did eat remarkably well for the rest of the voyage.

© Copyright, IF Research, October 2010.

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