In the past year, food safety violations and their resulting illnesses have been front-page news. Early last year Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology launched an algorithm it built to predict which of the city’s restaurants are most likely to violate health codes based on characteristics of their past violations. According to CityLab, the algorithm generates a ranked list of the food outlets inspectors should visit first – a time-saving benefit in a city with 16,000 eating establishments and three-dozen food inspectors – and it generates the results about a week before the inspectors could. What’s more, the department published its code on the programming site GitHub and promoted it so the algorithm could be applied to other cities. Still, bureaucracy can stand in the way – only Montgomery County, Md. expressed interest in adapting it. The county contracted Open Data Nation to do just that and after a two-month testing period, it looks promising. The adapted algorithm found 27% more violations in the first month than it would have otherwise, and three days earlier.
Aquaculture could boost landlocked restaurants
Consumers often associate farmed seafood with overfishing, pollution, antibiotics and unnatural food – but that could be changing. More than half the seafood eaten globally is farm-raised, so it’s in demand, and Civil Eats reports that entrepreneurs are now bringing aquaculture on land to meet the need for seafood in a sustainable way. An agronomy professor at New Mexico State University launched a company that raises chemical-free shrimp in a recirculating aquaculture system that naturally breaks down and repurposes waste it generates. He is franchising the concept. Similar systems are currently used to farm salmon, tilapia and steelhead trout in states far from the coast. Supporters say apart from their high energy consumption, these systems avoid many challenges ocean-based seafood farms encounter.
New year brings new value menus
It’s the time of year when consumers act on resolutions to spend less money, so many quick-service chains have overhauled their value menus. Who found the right combination? Wendy’s $4 promotion includes a junior bacon cheeseburger, small fries, four-piece chicken nuggets and small drink. Burger King offers a similar “5 for $4” promotion that also includes a cookie. McDonald’s, retiring its unsuccessful Dollar Menu, has a new McPick 2 offer that allows customers to pay $2 if they choose two items including a McChicken sandwich, mozzarella sticks and small fries. Pizza Hut, new to the value-meal competition, has a new $5 Flavor Menu. Customers can pay $5 each for two or more items off of a menu that includes a medium one-topping pizza, chicken wings and other items. Analysts say these restaurants are vying to find the right balance between providing the best value and turning the greatest profit.
Add eggs to the menu
The American Egg Board says times are good for eggs again following last year’s avian influenza outbreak and subsequent downturn in production. By the middle of this year, supplies should be at the levels they were prior to the outbreak. Of course, that means this quarter will be a good time to buy eggs as prices slide.
In case you’ve forgotten, America, cut the sugar
Every five years, the federal government revamps dietary guidelines for Americans. These recommendations, announced again recently, influence lunch programs in schools, standards for labeling products and restaurants’ menu development. The Wall Street Journal reviewed key changes in the latest round of recommendations: Consume less processed, sugary drinks and foods – less than 10% of daily calories should come from sugar. They provide a mixed message on cholesterol, dropping their longtime limit of 300mg daily but also suggesting consumers eat as little cholesterol as possible. The report advised limiting daily meat, poultry and egg consumption to one-third of a pound and said men and teenage boys are already getting more than they need. Finally, though the report maintained its recommended cap of 2,300mg of sodium per day, it revised an earlier cap on sodium for people of African descent – the latest guidance applies the cap to just people with medical conditions like high blood pressure.
Beverages rise in the ranks
This year could bring changes to the beverage menu. Food industry analysts see drinks following the path of main courses, with more organic and locally sourced sodas, wines and cocktails popping up on menus. (Pepsico will even be rolling out organic Gatorade this year.) Mixologists are testing new concoctions, from cocktails infused with everything from coffee to Kombucha. Drinks are also appearing in unexpected spots to help drive sales growth at food outlets. That means wine being served in cans, alcohol appearing on limited-service menus, and even Barnes & Noble testing out a beer and wine menu for some of its cafés. How is that for unexpected?
Let them eat cake, if you must
The government’s escalating warnings against sugar consumption could be welcome news for the restaurant industry. A recent report in the Washington Post said for many restaurants, especially those in the middle range that want to turn tables more quickly, dessert is becoming more trouble than it is worth. (Surprise! Margins are slim when you have tables lingering an extra hour to split a $5 slice of cheesecake.) To preserve profits, a number of upscale DC-area restaurants are forgoing the pastry chef and simplifying desserts so line cooks can prepare them. Another option to try: Outsource complex recipes to bakeries that have the workspace and personnel needed.
Tap the millennial demographic
Everyone wants a piece of the millennial market – after all, they already account for a quarter of restaurant spending and that figure is expected to expand in the next few years. One food service company, Eurest, is trying to tap the market from a number of angles. Eurest is a corporate dining company that provides onsite cafeteria and catering services. It just rolled out a new dining concept at 1,400 of its U.S. corporate cafeterias to appeal to the millennial demographic. According to Food Service Director, the new dining concept is called F.U.E.L., which stands for food, unity, energy, life. The program incorporates millennial dining preferences for fresh, local produce into standalone food stations or as options at existing food stations and makes it possible for customers to purchase these items to prepare meals at home. This follows the recent launch of the firm’s millennial-focused eDine app, which they developed from recommendations millennials shared in focus groups to outline their ideal dining experience at work. The app enables users to receive café promotions, rewards for referring coworkers, games and push communications about upcoming events.
Wood-firing in the hot seat
The food industry’s environmental awareness is expanding to include cooking practices and their effect on the air we breathe. In California, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is considering regulating restaurants that use wood-firing cooking methods, according to Foodservice Equipment. While the report says the restaurants contribute just a small percentage of the region’s air pollution, the district is looking into requiring restaurants to install equipment that would clean up smoke emissions and filter particles from the air. This comes on the heels of similar regulations announced in a town near Naples, Italy that temporarily banned wood-fired pizza making until restaurants install filters that would curb the area’s high pollution.
The food industry’s next automated task?
The largest meat-packing company in the world is testing out technology that could someday replace employees with robotic butchers. That’s according to a report from NPR indicating the beef company JBS had bought a controlling share of robotics firm Scott Technology. About 250,000 people work in slaughterhouses and the jobs are hazardous, physically demanding and have a high degree of turnover. So far, though, the work has been difficult to automate because it is so tactile. Robots aren’t there quite yet but stay tuned.