Business History, Public Health and the Future of Packaged Foods

Brad Hudson examines the timeline of packaged foods, covering everything from 19th-century innovations to the current pandemic's impact.

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Which type of bread would most consumers choose? Artisanal, or packaged? The answer would depend on when we ask the question. The responses and reasons would differ dramatically 150 years, 50 years, 150 days or 50 days into the past.

Numerous major food and beverage brands were founded during the late 19th century including Budweiser, Campbell’s, Coca-Cola, Coors, Heineken, Heinz, Hershey, Hormel, Nabisco, Nestlé, Pepsi-Cola, Pillsbury, Post, Quaker Oats, Smucker’s and Wrigley. If we extend the timeline a mere ten years, we can also include Kellogg’s and Kraft. The rise of the packaged food industry was certainly enabled by supply factors during the late stages of the Industrial Revolution. But why was there consumer demand?

Consumer Packaging Timeline

iStockiStockThe first reason was safety. A leading cause of early death circa 1850 was illness related to poor water or food. Back then, fresh food was often anything but fresh. Food handling, preservation, distribution and retailing were primitive in comparison to the practices and systems used today. Spoilage and contamination were frequent problems for raw meats, fruits and vegetables. Processed foods were not much better. They were often adulterated with inappropriate or harmful ingredients, prepared in facilities with questionable methods, and packaged in opaque containers.

Henry Heinz was successful because he was scrupulous about the quality of his products and processes. He used clear glass packaging that allowed consumers to inspect the product before purchase and he opened his factories for public tours. Heinz realized that a properly designed and managed facility could not only deliver inexpensive products, but also ensure low levels of contamination and spoilage. As consumers realized that his products were reliable and tasty, they developed trust in the Heinz brand and sales increased exponentially.

I Stock 517600787iStockThe second reason was availability. Two centuries ago, the American economy was predominantly agrarian. As the Industrial Revolution unfolded, there was a surge in the demand for labor. Aspiring young workers left their farms and moved near factories. The result was urbanization and the rapid growth of population centers such as Pittsburgh, which were geographically removed from the sources of food. Obtaining a sufficient quantity of nutritious and affordable food was suddenly a problem.

The market solution was a vast system of food manufacturers and retailers. Only a move toward industrialized agriculture, production and distribution could satisfy the immense and growing demand at regional and national levels. Packaging offered a system for preservation, which also had important benefits for the supply chain by increasing shelf life and reducing damage during shipping.

During the 20th century, Americans increasingly relied upon packaged foods. The traditional shelf-stable formats were expanded to include frozen foods and eventually chilled products, which had better flavor and texture profiles than canned foods. The value propositions were improved safety, longer storage, lower price and increased convenience of preparation.

Over the past few decades, there has been growing resistance to packaged foods of any type. Some concerns are similar to those a century ago, but they are interpreted differently today. The notion of freshness now means recently harvested and unprocessed, rather than unadulterated or spoiled. The concept of nutrition has been enlarged to include medical research about longevity, fitness, diabetes and brain health. Consumers have also become more attentive to the harmful effects of artificial ingredients.

iStockiStockOther concerns about packaged food have developed more recently. As people became more interested in environmental sustainability, they began to question the legitimacy of industrial farming methods and transportation systems that generated high carbon outputs. As a new generation was inundated by media, Americans increasingly resisted the messaging of ubiquitous brands.

Meanwhile, on the supply side, many food manufacturers were mishandling their legacy brands. To improve operational efficiency and optimize financial results, companies were reducing the size and quality of their products, while decreasing expenditures on advertising and brand promotion. Worse yet, these historic companies had lost their sense of purpose. They had forgotten how and why their brands became successful in the first place. And they had surrendered the narrative to competitors and substitutes.

A century ago, the food system was energized by notions of progress and technology. Today, the fashionable paradigm for food is regressive. A social movement signified by slogans such as ‘farm to fork’ or ‘eat local’ has increasingly convinced consumers to purchase or prepare food that has been minimally handled and processed at every phase of the value chain.

Pandemic Impact

I Stock 1059716592iStockThis brings us back to the question that started my article. Which type of bread would most consumers choose? Artisanal, or packaged? At 150 years ago, consumers did not have a choice. 50 years ago, many Americans were choosing the packaged bread due to its consistency, reliability, safety, availability and price. At 150 days ago, regardless of their actual choice, many consumers would have stated a preference for artisanal bread that was handmade by local bakers using organic flour. Fifty days ago, consumers were worried about finding any bread at all. And if they were given an alternative, they might choose the packaged bread because it has a longer shelf life, is minimally handled at the factory and is protected by impermeable plastic packaging. What a difference a crisis makes.

The current pandemic provides a favorable outlook for manufactured food over the short term. Consumers are expected to purchase a greater proportion of their food at retailers versus restaurants, be more concerned about shelf life, be more attentive to contamination and be more cautious about unknown providers. All of these factors favor packaged food from manufacturers with trusted brands.

I Stock 1144604925iStockThe crisis will eventually subside and the economy will probably return to its normal state before the outbreak. At that point, one of two things will happen in the food system. The first possibility is that consumers will continue to purchase manufactured foods with frequency and quantity that is permanently increased. The other possibility is that prior trends will resume and the demand for processed foods will decline over the long term.

Food manufacturers can influence the outcome in their favor. Instead of accepting the prevailing narrative scripted by detractors that focuses on weaknesses, the packaged food industry should promote a counter-narrative that focuses on strengths. These are unquestionably consistency, reliability, availability and safety from contamination.

Such claims can be justified and promoted in three different ways. The first approach involves explaining and promoting the features and benefits of the product, with a focus on technological progress in processing and packaging. People are often fascinated when they actually see complex manufacturing facilities in operation. The second approach involves subtly exploiting the current pandemic by promoting the practical epidemiological benefits of centralized manufacturing and impermeable packaging. The disruption caused by the coronavirus will be remembered long after it has abated, which means such messaging would likely have value over the long term.

The third approach involves crafting a narrative that connects existing events to a favorable historical context. The last time that Americans faced serious problems with the safety and availability of food was the 19th century. Henry Heinz and others solved that problem with manufactured food. Although the current situation is not as severe, consumers are nonetheless starting to worry about such issues. Once again, packaged foods are part of the solution.

HudsonHudsonThe American food manufacturing industry has an authentic claim to providing unprecedented economic and health benefits for humanity. That story needs to be remembered and told.

Bradford Hudson is Associate Professor of the Practice of Marketing in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He holds a Ph.D. in business history and specializes in heritage marketing. He is a former strategy and marketing consultant to numerous multinational corporations including Cadbury Schweppes and Nestlé. He can be contacted at bradford.hudson@bc.edu

This article was excerpted by permission from Brand Heritage Review.

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