In just a decade, there has been a phenomenal shift in the food landscape. There's far greater awareness of how our choices affect the entire food chain from fork to plate. The message that has filtered through broadly is that food choices matter, not only for ourselves but also for others — whether farmers or farm workers, or streams, the soil, the oceans and the air.
The organic component of this movement is small — still 3 percent of food sales — but if you include the way these ideas have filtered throughout the industry to non-organic producers, the figures are much higher.
In light of that movement, here are a few predictions for the coming year, in terms of hot button issues or products that will gain in popularity. For those watching the field, these won't be surprising, but I think they are ones to keep an eye on.
Sustainable seafood. Retailers will become increasingly aware of sustainable. Hopefully, we will begin to see a decline in the sale of collapsing fish populations — as occurred when chefs launched a boycott of swordfish a few years ago — and a rise in more environmentally benign aquaculture. This shift is gradual, but I detect increasing emphasis on the issue.
Organic milk. I offer no predictions on how the class action suits against retailers, which sold Aurora Organic's private-label milk, will turn out. But I expect the lawyers will make money. This, however, is a sideshow to a far more important decision coming out of the USDA that will impact the organic milk sector: the reform of the pasture rule that would require a minimum level of grazing.
We should see some action in the first half of 2008, creating a more level playing field for all dairy producers. Had the USDA acted on this even a year ago, much of the current mess could have been avoided.
Local sourcing. There will be increasing demand for locally grown foods, so much so that producers will be stretched to meet demand. While farmers' markets will continue to expand, the stealth growth will occur in the wholesale channel as more conventional growers attempt to ride the wave in local interest and more items show up in the supermarket.
Humane certified meat. Humane-certified meat will get a higher profile — and not a moment too soon. Already, mainstream companies are sourcing products like cage-free eggs, and chefs like Wolfgang Puck have committed to the issue. But this sector looks a lot like the organic world 15 years ago, with many competing standards and consumer confusion about what it means. That is unlikely to dissipate, though the roll-out of Whole Food's humane meat program in 2008 — rating meat products on a humane scale of one to five stars — will raise the awareness of this issue dramatically.
Genetically modified food. In the mainstream food channel, genetically modified food will continue to expand, despite protests. This will be most evident with meat from the progeny of cloned animals, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve shortly. The attention this issue generates will fuel demand for the alternative — organic and natural meat produced from clone-free animals.
Real Food. Here's one more prediction: people will return to cooking with real, unprocessed foods! Actually, people will gravitate toward real, unprocessed foods but much of it will be of the ready-to-eat variety. People will eat better, but expect the prepared food section to grow.