As with myriad elements of food science, the transport of food has slowly evolved into a cutting-edge process. Not long ago, food was grown and transported from a local farm to your table using nothing more than a horse-drawn wagon. Today, our everyday meals are more likely to contain foreign-grown ingredients that have traveled thousands of miles en route to our collective tables.
The transport of food has a direct impact on food safety. Food contamination can occur at any point in the food supply chain, including during transport. Additionally, as the development of food transport parallels the advancement of civilization itself, so does the demand for enhanced levels of food safety.
While advancements in technology have helped to accelerate food delivery across the world, increasing consumer demand for food safety has necessitated the evaluation, modification and—indirectly—the advancement of food transport methods. To this end, technological advancements are being continuously relied upon to ensure the safe delivery of food.
Food Transportation: The Past
In ancient times, man was limited to hunting and gathering food. As such, this nomadic period accomplished little in terms of food transportation developments. It can be assumed that any food that did need to be transported was moved to another location mostly on foot, with the limited assistance of domesticated livestock—perhaps the most significant transportation achievement during this period.
For approximately the first 2 million to 3 million years of human existence, our distant ancestors lived on the very land used for sustenance. In such days, it was common for people to live in groups and possess certain responsibilities for food, such as hunting, fishing, and gathering. These distant people commonly lived in areas where food and water were located, moving only when their necessities needed to be replenished.
The invention of the wheel for transportation—originally, it was used as a potter’s wheel—occurred sometime around 3300 B.C. In retrospect, this was the first significant development in the history of food transportation.
Up to this point, humans were limited to food that could be carried or stocked on a domesticated animal. With the discovery of the wheel, humans effectively transitioned from a sustenance-based existence to one that allowed them to trade and barter food and other goods. Of course, the invention and subsequent development of the wheel ultimately led to the evolution of food transportation, which continues to this very day.
Food Transportation: The Present
The most significant advancement in the development of food transportation occurred in the 19th century with the advent of rail, steam, and the automobile. In essence, this allowed for relatively safe, long-distance transport of foodstuffs for the first time in history. In addition to being safer, such methods were also more reliable and less expensive.
As agricultural processes evolved, so did the reliance on fleets of planes, trucks, boats, and trains “to transport food over thousands of miles, from where it is produced to where it is eaten.” Combined with the capabilities of refrigeration, it was now possible to transport perishable food products, such as eggs, meat, and produce, in a safe manner.
Other developments, such as free trade agreements and increased consumer demand, led the United States to drastically increase the amount of food imported from other countries. Inventions such as refrigerated transport, allowed for the expansion of food importing events to naturally unfold.
Today, the traditional American diet is more globalized than ever. The United States primarily imports from Canada and Mexico. The US also imports from Europe (France and Italy); Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Thailand), and beyond (Japan and New Zealand).
By no means is this an all-inclusive list. According to data accumulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States actively imports goods from 64 countries. In 2013, it is estimated that the U.S. imported over 123 billion pounds of food.
Food Transportation: The Future
The safe transport of food continues to be a top priority for developed countries around the world. In the United States, the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011 consisted of the most sweeping changes to food safety laws in history, including statutes exclusively for this purpose.
A rule within FSMA, appropriately called the “food safety transportation rule,” prioritizes the safe transport of food. Among the statutes are guidelines for “best sanitation practices in transportation,” including proper cleaning of transportation carriers between loads, the use of proper protections for food during transport, and proper refrigeration.
Food safety experts ascertain that technology will continue to have a marked impact on the safe transport of food. This becomes clear when one considers the goals of multiple stakeholders, ranging from producers who aim to keep costs down to consumers who demand rigorous safety measures to the governing bodies responsible for managing these interests. Furthermore, environmental considerations such as greenhouse gases must be taken into account when considering any technological developments.
Technologies that continue to demonstrate advancements, including controlled atmosphere technologies, the development of vessel technology, and advanced refrigeration methods are all currently being evaluated and implemented to help ensure the safe and timely transportation of food.