Expo Milan Focuses on Food

The current world's fair samples the world's tastiest dishes while exploring technology and how to feed a growing population.

By Leslie Herzog & Jacqueline Beckley, The Understanding & Insight Group

Expo Milano is the "universal exhibition" (apparently the updated name for a world's fair) that Milan, Italy, is hosting May 1-Oct. 31. This global event promises to focus on food and culture, with the official theme being "feeding the planet; energy for life."

More than 140 participating countries are showing the best of their technology that offers answers to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone while respecting the planet and its equilibrium.  The planners promise that Expo 2015 will give everyone the opportunity to sample the world’s tastiest dishes while discovering the agri-food and gastronomic traditions of each of the exhibitor countries.

As curious scientists and trendspotters for large companies, we decided to attend Expo Milano. Since we all live in this global community, what does the world have to say about food, culture and agriculture today?

Four major themes were pervasive through the show: sustainability, quality, traceability and technology.

There was an entire section on future foods.  It was a complex of trendy ideas such as the algae system, demonstrations of the kitchen of the future and an operating grocery store that provided a snapshot of how sustainability, quality, traceability and authenticity might get delivered in the future.

The grocery store was created by Coop, a system of Italian consumers' cooperatives that operates the largest supermarket chain in Italy. At the Coop, if you want to know where the apple you touch comes from, when it was picked or the nutritional value, let alone the price, a screen above the food pops up with that information.

You can then go outside, sitting with others around a community table, which was also growing herbs, and eat your apple or other food while viewing the vertical garden.  There was a lot of information in this foods of the future section that could give newly minted or even established food industry people some hands-on ideas.

About two-thirds of the way from the entrance is the U.S. pavilion, a large complex with a variety of experiences involving tours, shopping, food, restaurants and some brief videos that attempt to summarize the U.S. food culture. It was interesting to see how the U.S. presented itself to the rest of the world on the subject of food. The key themes of the U.S. pavilion were:

  • Tradition transformed – I.e., we take the Italian meatball and make it our own.
  • BBQ by regions – We are BBQ, but it is not the same everywhere in this big country of ours.
  • Thanksgiving – It might change by an American's cultural background, but everyone in the U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving, and food is a key part of that holiday.
  • On-the-go eating – We Yanks have made it a high art, but even in Italy they now advertise "away food’ – for busy people with mobile devices who need to keep moving. Sorry, slow food culture, the U.S. has delivered you mobile food.
  • Artisans – Think Brooklyn and lots of other niches like this.
  • Farm to Table – Producing and delivering food locally.
  • Next Bite – A futuristic look at how food might be made to feed the world's population.
  • Regional Cuisine – Six regions were represented with foods from each. Food trucks outside served food from the regions. The beverages on the trucks are PepsiCo products, although Coca-Cola has its own pavilion that has great history of Coke and teaches about company efforts with the sustainable plant-based bottle.

The degree to which the countries created their unique pavilions was fascinating. Most were large, beautiful and had permanence. The French, Korean and Netherlands pavilions were enormous and elaborate.  There also were areas of focus, like spices, coffee, or chocolate, and these provided pavilions that allowed smaller countries to be present, but at a much less expensive level.

Some other examples of what you can find:

Food for onsite consumption: Need a place to get some gourmet meals? That’s available with several country pavilions hosting renowned chefs – although most require advance reservations. Looking for ice cream? That’s available thanks to Unilever having folks driving push carts throughout the expo, as well as two stores (one selling hand dipped Magnums).  If you have a taste for Italian gelato, Rigoletto is the fair’s official outlet.  The Wall Street Journal reported that there are approximately 170 places offering food and drink at this expo.

Other food-related activities in Milan to justify the trip in your mind: There is great show at the Triennial Museum.  There are exhibits on culture, food in art, and a very cool rendition around common kitchen tools.

Will we be able to feed 9 billion people by 2050? Based on the imagination, science and technology we saw on display at the expo, we would say yes. 

Milan Expo is definitely worth going to.  The energy and excitement of the event is worth it if you can afford to go.   The level of detail and excitement is not describable; we were there on a Thursday and a Friday in May and the show was packed.  Some of the pavilions had an hour wait just to get in.

This is one of those "wow’s".  We came with narrow expectations and were blown away.  Italy has embraced the event with families, school children and business professional all in attendance. However, it's sad to think that this well designed and thought-through expo will go away by the end of October. So see it before it’s gone.

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