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  • Writer's pictureMeyrick Consulting

Why is AI being adopted by the food industry?

COVID-19 has much to answer for

We have all been shopping online. E-commerce will not change any time soon. The mundane shopping experience is over. Shopping is likely to become more of an event in future. But every time we click online, we are giving away valuable data. Industry understands our needs wants and shopping behaviours like never before. This may drive extraordinary innovation but within the food industry, for example, there are some profound considerations that cannot be ignored.

We are witnessing real-time behaviour change and it’s likely to continue.

This is not just having a quick browse online with a glass of wine on a Friday night anymore. It’s a shift in mindset and resulting behaviours. During February 2021 food delivery apps saw a massive period of growth. To be specific this segment of the food industry grew by 119%. Many people have discovered the convenience of online shopping for the very first time and it’s unlikely they will go back to old behaviours. The food industry has a massive opportunity here and it’s almost risk-free once data harvesting is in place. Massive volumes of consumer data around shopping habits are almost priceless. Therefore the chance to design AI tools to leverage this extraordinary information has never been so necessary or desirable. Photo: Clem Onojeghuo

Data availability

It will be interesting to see just how transformed we are as a society as the UK lockdown begins to ease. Digitally, our lives have been transformed and we may be slow or unwilling to return to the past. What was once seen as niche and business is now part of our everyday lives.

The availability of data means food business practices have been transformed.

Many of them are digitised as a direct consequence of the pandemic. So many food producers, manufacturers and growers were forced to transform every aspect of their business at high speed. If you relied on people coming to your door to purchase your goods it was obvious that this was no longer a working model. Everyone had to be agile and flexible to keep up with the shift to online purchases. Although this may have been painful and expensive moving to digital operations opened up the potential of analytics and increased automation.

Agility will separate the best from the also-rans

Walkers crisps, for example, relied heavily on pubs and hospitality. They sold single flavour boxes to these outlets, overnight the market was closed. It was important to leverage the supermarket opportunity where people wanted to buy larger multi bags of varying flavours. The challenge was tweaking machinery to a) deliver this change in buying patterns, and b) ensure that breakdowns could be fixed virtually as social distancing and the need to stay at home prevented on site repairs. It’s this kind of agility that has given some producers a real lead during these difficult times.

Counteracting food waste

The closure of restaurants and hospitality at the height of the pandemic transformed a large part of the food landscape. In the early days of lockdown, food destined for these outlets was left in limbo. Even small producers that may well have relied solely on restaurants needed to find other markets. Interestingly, the general public was very engaged with the stories and once small producers realised there was another market waiting for them online it was all systems go.

The valorisation of supply chains is key

With the growing focus on food waste and its impact on the climate as well as the moral issues surrounding its companies and consumers are demanding change. On a simple economic level, the costs of food waste is unacceptable. For example, in the US lost retail value with respect to food waste is running at about $18.2 billion a year. This is wrong on every level. The cost of the production in every sense cannot be wasted. The food industry is beginning to understand acutely that the millions of tonnes of food waste cannot continue. A more dynamic data driven approach to food production, delivery and storage could be a game changed. A.I will have a huge part to play in this. The valorisation of supply chains is a key issue right now.

Automated checks at every part of the supply chain will be a game changer.

You can also imagine how historic workflows will be transformed too from calculating exact fertiliser and pesticide requirements to the utilisation of mobile coffee bean quality sensors. The implementation of hyper specific automation will give much more control to growers and manufacturers. This will increase quality and also improve legacy assessment processes to understand the presence of moulds, bacteria, pests, moisture, insufficient growth, ripeness and so on. The possibilities are extremely exciting and may well prevent wastage or over-production.

‘One size fits all’ is yesterday’s news

In the past, food cost more. Families would produce one meal and that was the only thing on offer, you eat it or went hungry. We have become used to a more personalised approach to food. We have the capacity to offer different meals to suit all tastes and many people never sit down to the same meal at the same time apart from a special occasion.

Photo: Mor Shani

Food personalisation is one of the biggest drivers of food innovation in the last 10 years.

This has happened for a number of reasons that include technology and also media interest. Social media has played a large part in educating consumers regarding nutrition, well-being, health and how our buying habits affect the environment. You might say that food literacy has never been so sophisticated. It also means we have the knowledge to seek out producers that align with our own beliefs. Food consumption is political once more.

We are used to accessing a huge variety of food products

A dining table will be populated by vegans, vegetarians, gluten intolerants, dairy free eaters alongside carnivores and all points between. In richer economies food is not just the thing that keeps us alive but it’s a source of pleasure and socialisation. Therefore, many people are constantly searching for a more personalised food experience. There is massive potential in that need.

Alongside personalisation the concept of purpose driven food experiences is also part of the mix.

Looking at companies that are responding to and also leading change we can see that venture capital has jumped on the bandwagon. AI innovation within the food industry is showing massive investment capacity. This will only increase as the more we know about what we buy and how our tastes are changing machine learning will become far more accurate. The results will likely be extraordinary.

Data protection is a major responsibility

This is exciting and the food industry is more than likely to produce some interesting new roles in AI and all its associated technologies. However, with increased data collection comes increased privacy considerations. Data availability and its security goes hand-in-hand and there will be a number of vacancies around security and privacy.

Protecting data sets from data privacy risks and also intellectual property theft will be an ongoing concern. Also, inherent bias and data integrity will also be on the menu. Algorithm discrimination is a potential issue. Algorithms require the appropriate training and must be part of the considerations when implementing artificial intelligence.

To conclude

Although AI is and will be a game changer this change does not happen overnight. Companies will need to recognise that deployments will take considerable investment of both time and money. Like most things even AI requires the opportunity to gain its own patina. As it draws on more data it becomes more accurate therefore companies must make the decision whether to commit early and speed up development or wait to build up reliable accuracy. Those companies that get these decisions right will profit considerably.

How will your business retain key staff?

Also, the staffing requirements throughout the food industry will also demand a serious degree of specialisation. Finding the exact match will impact on business development. Training and ongoing CPD will be important and also staff retention. With such a high demand for specific skills executive team members will be head hunted and companies must offer highly attractive terms and working environments to attract and keep the very best. If you need help with any aspect of executive recruitment please do give me a call for a no obligation discussion about your needs.


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