The food system

The food you eat is produced by a complicated, global food system – that involves many activities and processes that get your food from farm to fork. The main activities in the food system are shown in Figure 1:

From left to right: producing icon, processing and packing icon, distributing and retailing icon and consuming and disposing of waste icon

Figure 1: The food system. ©University of Reading, image adapted from Ericksen (2008) [1]
  • Producing – primary food production of crops and animals from agriculture and fishing.
  • Processing and packaging – secondary food processing of food into a whole variety of different food products.
  • Distributing and retailing – including transportation, marketing and selling to the consumer.
  • Consuming and disposing of waste – buying, preparing, consuming of food and disposing of waste products.

Producing food

Primary food production includes the growth and harvesting of crops and the rearing and slaughter of livestock animals. Other examples include milking, catching fish and seafood and the collection of hen eggs. The primary food groups also referred to as ‘food ingredients’ include: vegetables, fruits, legumes/beans/pulses, cereals, tubers, meat, milk, poultry, egg, fish and other seafood [2].

Do you know where the primary ingredients in your food come from? The European Commission has brought in new legislation that requires this information to be made available to consumers.

Many of these main food groups are produced by farmers in Europe; the breakdown of the total agricultural production in 2017 into these food groups is shown in Figure 2.

A pie chart that shows a breakdown  of the total agricultural production in 2016: Crops 51.9%, Animals 39.2% and others 8.9%

Figure 2: Output of the agricultural industry, EU-28, 2017. Source: Eurostat [2] © European Union, 1995-2013

The food produced can either be consumed in the country of origin or exported (sold) to other countries.

A bar chart that indicates different food goods that are imported and exported by EUR millions (approx figures). Starting from top to bottom:
Animal import and exports represented by red bars: 
01 Live animals - export 3000, import less than 1000
02 Meat and edible meat offal - export 10000, import 4000
03 Fish and crustaceans, molluscs and other aquatic invertebrates - export 4000, import 21000
04 Dairy produce; birds' eggs; natural honey; edible products - export 12000, import 1000
05 Products of animal origin, not elsewhere specified or included - export 1000, import 1500
Vegetable import and exports represented by blue bars: 
06 Live trees and other plants; bulbs, roots and the like; cut flowers and ornamental foliage - export 2500, import 2000
07 Edible vegetables and certain roots and tubers - export 3000, import 5000
08 Edible fruit and nuts; peel of citrus fruits or melons - export 4000, import 21000
09 Coffee, tea, mate and spices - export 2000, import 11000
10 Cereals - export 6500, import 6000
11 Products of the milling industry; malt; starches; inulin; wheat gluten - export 3500, import under 1000
12 Oil seeds and oleaginous fruits; miscellaneous grains, seeds and fruit; industrial or medicinal plants; straw and fodder - export 3500, import 11000
13 Lac; gums, resins and other vegetable sap and extracts - export 2000, import 1500
14 Vegetable plaiting materials; vegetable products not elsewhere specified or included - export 0, import under 1000
15 Animal or vegetable fats and oils and their cleavage products; prepared edible fats, animal or vegetable waxes - export 6000, import 11000
Foodstuffs import and export represented by green bars: 
16 Preparations of meat, of fish or of crustaceans molluscs or other aquatic invertebrates- export 2000, import 6000
17 Sugars and sugar confectionery - export 2500, import 2000
18 Cocoa and cocoa preparations - export 6000, import 7500
19 Preparations of cereals, flour, starch or milk; pastry cooks' products - export 12500, import 2000
20 Preparations of vegetables, fruit, nuts or other parts of plants - export 6000, import 6500
21 Miscellaneous edible preparations - export 8000, import 4500
22 Beverages, spirits and vinegar - export 30000, import 6500
23 Residues and waste from the food industries; prepared animal fodder - export 6000, import 9500
24 Tobacco and manufactured tobacco substitutes - export 6000, import 2500

Figure 3: Export - Import data on foods in the EU (2017). Source Eurostat [3]. © European Union, 1995-2013

The information in Figure 3 shows that in 2017 the EU-28 exported (darker coloured bars) and imported (lighter coloured bars) different amounts of food across 24 categories. The main categories (in financial terms) that were imported to boost existing levels in the EU-28 included:

  • Aquatic produce (ie fish, crustaceans, molluscs)
  • Edible fruits, nuts, peel
  • Coffee, tea, spices

On the other hand, the key exports from the EU-28 were:

  • Beverages, spirits and vinegar
  • Cereals, flour, starch
  • Dairy produce
  • Meat

Processing and packaging

Primary processing involves cutting, cleaning, packaging, storage and refrigeration of raw foods to ensure that they are not spoilt before they reach the consumer. These minimally processed foods retain the original properties ie nutrition, physical, sensory and chemical properties as the unprocessed form and are ready for further processing by the food industry (secondary processing). Primary processing examples include milling of wheat, pasteurisation of milk and the sorting and refrigeration of meat and often, are a necessary step for ensuring food safety before the food is consumed.

Secondary food production involves converting raw food ingredients into more useful or edible forms. Secondary food products are refined, purified, extracted or transformed from minimally processed primary food products [4,5,6]. Examples of secondary food products are processed dairy, flours, edible oils, sugars/sweeteners and starches [4]. Secondary food processes may vary depending on the type of food group, but could include physical processes such as pressing, milling and dehydration, and chemical processes such as hydrolysis, hydrogenation or using enzymes [4].

Ultra-processed food products are produced by combining primary food products and other secondary food products to create ready-to-eat food and drink products with high sensory appeal; eg cakes, sweets, jams, soft drinks and ready meals [7].

To increase the attractiveness of the secondary food products to the consumer, they could be fortified with vitamins, minerals or functional compounds/organism such as probiotics.

Some secondary food production processes, such as heat treatment, fermentation and packaging, may be used to extend the shelf life of the primary food ingredient. Packaging is important to protect the food product and delay physical, chemical and biological deterioration. This process is vital for many convenience foods, ensuring the availability of a variety of high quality, nutritious and affordable foods all year round within the UK, Europe and around the world [5].

Distributing and retail

The third or “tertiary” activity in global food system focuses on the food services industry; including food wholesalers, distributors and retailers. This food system involves the safe handling (ie distribution/transport/supply, storage and sale/trade) of primary and secondary food products. It also addresses the management of consumer need and demand and broader issues such as minimising food waste.

In the UK, retailers are deeply involved into the consumer markets (downstream) and in the production and distribution processes (upstream) [8]. The retailer is not a passive food distributor: it can drive the production, innovation, quality and packaging of foods [9]. Supermarkets (especially in the UK) are responsive to consumer concerns; for example they can be involved in setting environmental standards in the supply chain by sourcing more sustainable foods [8] such as fairtrade [10] and organic products [11].

Consuming and disposing of waste

The final activity in the food system relates to consumption of food and disposal of waste which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this course. If you’re interested in finding out more, you may find the recommended reading/information sources helpful in the ‘See also’ section.

The full list of references can be found under ‘Downloads’ and further reading is provided under ‘See also’ - both found at the bottom of this Step

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This article is from the free online course:

Trust in Our Food: Understanding Food Supply Systems

EIT Food