Whatever any pundit worth his keyboard might have placed on his hot trends for 2016 list a few weeks ago was obliterated by the never-ending story that is the Chipotle food safety scandal. It is a soap opera that has more twists and turns and revolting developments than the combined and Waring blendered plots of the Edge of Night, Secret Storm and All My Children. It has made for a nasty tasting Christmas egg nog at their Denver headquarters.
Chipotle's misadventures are set in stone and dipped in bronze at the top of my list. The fallout will continue well into the new year and will have almost as much of an impact on how food is presented as the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak in 1993. Knowing it's the surprises that often confound these seasonal best guesses, I've tried to look beyond the most obvious choices to complete this list of the most likely half dozen trends. To be honest, though, it's like rolling the dice on a table atop the tallest of the Trump Towers. Sometimes, the bones fall over the edge and the numbers land too far away to read.
1. The Chipotle effect
They've spent a few years defaming the majority of American agriculture to pimp their always shaky 'smaller is better' claim. You've heard it before; "If I can look my farmer in the eye, I know my food is safe." To be honest, if you can look him in the eye, all you really know is who is selling you your rutabagas and hot house tomatoes. As Chipotle has learned, food safety as part of the bargain ain't necessarily so. That small, local source might be able to deliver some very nice seasonal produce but it doesn't have the same scientific tools to test for food safety as the bigger suppliers do. The advantage is local resources tend to mean localized outbreaks of food borne illnesses. The disadvantage is lots of local sources can mean lots of localized outbreaks.
The effect, of course, will be a reluctance of major chains to jump on the small & local bandwagon. Managing such a diverse group of suppliers is a nearly impossible task and the huge financial risks when it fails are still being totaled by Chipotle. It will mean better and more frequent testing, too; something Chipotle has already pledged to do, and greater transparency about sources of supply, something they've tried to finesse in the fine print.
2. Food Waste/Stem the waste
For a long time, the loudest cry about what we'll have to do to feed the growing multitudes around the world was 'increase production!' Yes. we'll need to grow a lot more food using the most advanced technology to meet the demand but we've been overlooking one quiet voice in our scientific stampede to find more productive (AKA GMOs) seedstock.
We throw away too much of what we produce and we commit two great sins in doing so.
1. Plate waste is shameful. Estimates suggest at least a third of the food we buy gets discarded.
2. Distribution losses are more than shameful. Tons of food sent to regions suffering from famine just disappear; either stolen and resold for profit or lost to improper handling.
Supermarkets know they can only sell the prettiest of fruits and vegetables and they regularly cull and discard anything with a bruise of blemish. In the U.S., we've seen an 'ugly fruit' movement that should put a small dent in food waste. More will be done as reduce and reuse become more important..
What about distribution losses? Ending greed and graft in third world countries might not be possible.
3. The natural food movement
Please let it start to fade. Let's add organic, chemical free and hormone-free to the list of silly and overblown food fads, too. Parents might experience a small 'feel good' moment when they feed a burger made with ground beef labeled all natural & hormone free to their children but that moment is all they'll get out of spending the extra money. every ounce of beef you can buy is a hormone-free, natural product. Food processors have overplayed their hand, using the latest newly-minted buzz words to peddle the same old same old. Consumers are getting wise to this street corner game of three card monte with their 'Oatie-O's'..
See #3. The old phrase, "You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time" comes into play here. Food processors can make all the claims their heart desires - and are legally permissible - but they are going to have to deliver like never before with the rise of a nosey social media. It has hatched hundreds of watch dog groups ready to blow the whistle on spurious product statements, nothing will go unchallenged. Making a claim that's even the slightest questionable could mean an instant loss of credibility that took decades to build.
Full disclosure upfront is the only way to go and expect to survive. Fuller disclosure: Some of those watch dogs are making non-scientific claims even more ridiculous than those made by the shadiest of food processors. Beware; the only requirements for entering a social net and claiming expertise in any field is a computer and an internet connection. Knowledge and good sense are not necessary.
5. Complete meals
The trend has been evolving since the end of WWII. My grandmother grabbed a live chicken from the back yard for Sunday dinner. My mother bought New York dressed chickens from the neighborhood butcher; defeathered (mostly) and gutted, beak and feet still attached. My wife bought pieces and parts from Kroger. My daughter picks up rotisserie chickens at Piggly Wiggly. Notice a trend? When my grandchildren are of age, they will probably press a button next to their vestigial stove/microwave in their very compact kitchen and wait for Amazon to drop off a complete hot meal a half hour later. Picked up at that same Piggly Wiggly and delivered by drone or an Uber driver? Probably.
6. Bold flavors
America's professional chefs and home cooks are bringing on the heat, spice-wise, especially when it comes to tweaking recipes for the all American barbecue. We've seen the rise of ever hotter international cuisines that have changed our view of what's good for dinner. Once upon a time, a jalapeno was considered the equivalent of molten lava. Today, it's just another mild-mannered pepper. Latin American cuisines, led by Peruvian and Argentinean dishes, will bring their fiery sauces to the U.S.
Korean sauces are becoming more popular, too, probably because they begin with familiar ingredients and add just enough of the 'exotic' to appeal to the only slightly adventurous foodies. Most recipes start with an old American standard - brown sugar - and use vinegar, peppers and garlic. They take a definite far Eastern turn, though, with the addition of ginger, sriracha and mirin, a sweet rice wine used in many oriental recipes.