Forgotten food manufacturers deserve our gratitude

The list of key workers who are helping the UK society deal with this pandemic is long. Some people keep us going, but they have been forgotten.

While supermarket staff and delivery driver have been lauded for their heroic efforts, they are not paying enough attention to the origins of the food that they sell or deliver.

Someone has to produce raw, unprocessed ingredients. Someone else must then turn these ingredients into processed foods that are sold in supermarkets. For months, they’ve been dealing with an unprecedented demand.

There are indeed different levels of human interaction and processing required to produce the food we desire. The primary process is a minimum level of processing that involves cleaning, cutting, storing, and packaging raw foods. Farmer’s produce livestock, for example. This is then sent to abattoirs, where a production team ensures that butchers and manufacturers of ready meals have a constant supply of different cuts.

It was fascinating to note that pasta, canned tomatoes, and sausages were among the foods that were mentioned first in stories of panic-buying and hoarding. All of these are secondary foods. These are raw ingredients that have been transformed into more usable or edible forms. It requires the skills and knowledge of workers who are often overlooked in the refining, purifying, extracting, and combining of minimally processed food products.

These secondary processed foods are the mainstay of many people’s grocery baskets. They include dairy products and flours as well as oils, sweeteners, and flours. It is not surprising that these foods are in high demand. They form the basis of many cheap, quick, and easy meals. As uncertainty increased about transportation and imports, food companies and buyers worked to keep up with the demand.

Home cooking

Lockdown saw an increase in the sales of flour, tinned tomatoes, and recipe websites. The BBC launched a daily cooking show. Before lockdown, we may have become too reliant on fast food, take-out, and prepared meals and less confident about our cooking skills.

The apparent lack of knowledge and skills in food could be attributed to the virtual eradication of what was formerly called the “home economy” but is now referred to as “food technology,” which has become less and less common at British schools and colleges.

In a way, as a nutritionist, I was pleased to see that the supermarkets ran out of primary and secondary processed food. This shows that people are trying to cook healthy food for themselves and their families. There were plenty of ultra-processed food products in every supermarket, including cakes, biscuits, and confectionery. This could be evidence that a nation is changing its unhealthy eating habits and eating healthier meals at home.

When you consider the complexity of the food industry, you can understand why workers in the food industry are included in (the section that is largely ignored) the list of key workers. The industry has dealt with this by speeding up recruitment. Like medics and final year food science and technology students, employers are requiring them much earlier than expected, before graduation, in order to meet demand.

Part of the process. Shutterstock/Vladimir Nenezic

The food technologists have taken up their posts in the graduate scheme early. They are now working in a range of positions, both office-based and factory-based, covering everything from sustainability to safety and processing.

The food industry is a vital part of maintaining a safe supply. The food industry is a dynamic and caring career option.

In 2018, 14.4% of the UK working population was employed in the food and beverage industry, and the British people spent PS226 billion on food, drinks, and catering.

When you queue up to buy your next essentials at the supermarket, remember those heroes who work tirelessly to make sure that your raw carrots, pasta, chicken nuggets, or truffle oil have been delivered safely to your independent retailer or supermarket. Food is essential for our stomachs, but it’s also near and dear to our hearts.

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