By Dana McCauley

I grew up in the days before HBO, Netflix and TV stations that play kids programming all day, every day. When I was in elementary school, shows like the Jetson’s and Star Trek, long in re-runs even then, were my after school entertainment. I remember watching the food replicator spit out meals in seconds and the bio-matter sequencer recycle all the waste with no muss or fuss whilst George Jetson dealt with his day-to-day challenges and while my mom peeled potatoes and browned chicken in our nearby kitchen. These TV shows fascinated me because they envisioned a very far off future where people were untethered from the daily grind of shopping, preparing, cooking and disposing of food but still ate exactly what they craved!

Many years later, I found myself working as a food writer who wrote recipes for home cooks. While I couldn’t help consumers to satisfy their cravings instantly, I did create recipes for fast to prepare meals and wrote hundreds of tips for ways to use leftover ingredients. In the process, I developed a keen sense of what people wanted to eat which led me to develop a knack for analyzing food trends. I’ve turned my future forward gaze and my intimate knowledge of consumer preferences and behaviour into a specialization. I now divide my time between working with food industry leaders to help them to anticipate the best new product opportunities for the future and working with University of Guelph researchers to help them to bring their future changing agri-food innovations to market to improve the lives of people like all of us.

After two decades as one of Canada’s most often consulted food trend experts, I’m disappointed to report that no one anyone has created a real life food replicator yet; however, I have seen a vast amount of innovation in Canada’s food sector. I’ve worked with high quality food scientists and engineers at our universities and in industry and I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with marketers who have great insight into domestic and international market needs. Yet, in 2018 Canada ranked 18th on the Global Innovation Index (GII)**, three places lower than in 2016. What’s going on? Why is Canada not in the top five most innovative countries in the world?

While the GII is not food sector specific, food does play a big role in the Canadian economy so our score remains discouraging. Digging deeper one finds that food and food products contribute over $50 billion per year in export income*, making Canada the fifth-largest exporter of food products in the world. Unfortunately, the bulk of this revenue comes from selling unprocessed commodities to other countries, leaving our innovation score to languish.

The Canadian food industry can be more innovative and show innovation leadership in a number of ways. Food manufacturers are currently constrained in the domestic market by a highly consolidated and competitive retail marketplace that keeps margins and net profits very low. As a result food manufacturers may have lots of ideas for great new food products, but they have limited funds for R&D or adopting new technology that will propel the industry forward. Somehow, our retailers need to be encouraged to let food prices rise to a free market level so that these companies can use their R&D dollars to create new offerings and not just to reformulate existing products to realize cost reductions.

On the export front, Canadian food manufacturers and technology companies have challenges, too. Because we value, among other things, universal health care and paying people a living wage, Canadian products will never compete on price internationally. That means we have to encourage our food industry to do two things 1. Commit to being innovation leaders and launch the best, most innovative and desirable products before other countries. And, 2. Maintain Canada’s brand promise of selling safe, healthy food by continuing to enforce rigourous food safety systems and by adopting new tools such as blockchain, DNA barcoding and isotope mapping that will ensure that our food claims are trusted, credible and traceable.

I get a glimpse into the technology that will give the food and agricultural sector new tools to innovative with via my work at the University of Guelph, I also have a long standing relationship with SIAL as their Canadian Innovation Ambassador because this annual show keeps me in touch with how marketers and product developers are responding to consumer demand. It’s interesting to see the evolution of trends that the products submitted each year reveal. For instance, about five years ago the predominant themes in the submissions were indulgence and sharing and home entertaining. Fast forward to 2018 and the products skewed much more toward individual eating and accommodating personal dietary preferences, directly in line with current trends.

SIAL is important for innovators because a meeting place where a diverse cross section of the food industry flocks to discover new things, share ideas and renew their creativity. And, because SIAL is an international show, walking the aisles and talking to the people who fly in from around the world provides an excellent market research ground for tapping into what trends are resonating globally.

This article originally appeared on page 28 of the March/April 2019 issue of Western Grocer Magazine