Editor's Plate

Editor's Plate: What the Smart Fridge Means for Food and Beverage Processors

With a little collaboration between food processors and appliance makers, the ‘Family Hub’ might provide new opportunities for both.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Not too many discussions of “the future of the food and beverage industry” involve the refrigerator. But recent trends in the food business have been reshaping the old icebox, and maybe the icebox can help reshape the food and beverage industry.

The 2018 Consumer Electronics Show ended in Las Vegas Jan. 12. Every year I consider going, thinking I could justify the trip because some of these futuristic appliances could impact the food industry (I really just want to go for the fun). While I missed it again this year, I have been reading the reviews to see how the “smart fridge” is evolving.

Samsung’s Family Hub refrigerator debuted at CES in 2016. With my old refrigerator still chilling along nicely despite its age, I hadn’t been shopping for one in more than a decade. So I had no idea they now can be outfitted with video screens, internet connectivity and even sensors and cameras.

“It’s more than a fridge – it’s the Family Hub,” Samsung’s marketing says. “With the Family Hub, you can shop for food, organize your family’s schedules and even entertain – all right from your fridge.” Even that promotional copy is a short list of what this group of refrigerators can do.

“From creating shopping lists to coordinating schedules to playing your favorite songs and movies, the Family Hub keeps your life more connected than ever.” As if I need to be connected for that little slice of my life spent in the kitchen. But I don’t doubt some people do. Especially those with a young family.

In that respect, Family Hub as an apt name. An internet-connected video touchscreen that looks about 10-by-20 inches can display the month’s calendar … or your schedule for today. And today’s weather report. It can replace yellow Post-It notes with electronic memos to yourself or family members. A white board lets you write notes or draw funny pictures of your spouse.

What better place to follow an electronic recipe? A finger’s touch creates an evolving shopping list … which you can download to your smartphone before you head to the store – if you remember to – or access remotely if you don’t remember to. Some of the highest-end models include a camera that, accessed remotely via smartphone while you’re at the store, looks inside your fridge to see how much milk is left, how many eggs remain.

Heck, why go the store at all? With the right apps, you can order your groceries – on-demand or automatically – or maybe one of those meal kits that I like to make fun of.

When everyone is gathered in the kitchen, use it to play your tunes. Catch the TV news or stream a movie, if you allow it. Answer an incoming phone call.

Integrate family members’ schedules, share photos and send messages from your refrigerator to your family’s phones. But if little Henry made a work of art in preschool, there’s no place to hang it anymore … unless you digitize it and display it here.

All those things require some touch, but if your fingers are covered with cake batter or worse, use the voice recognition system.

But how can the smart fridge impact the food and beverage industry…and vice versa?

What are the biggest trends in the food industry right now?

  • Transparency: With some built-in scanner or optical reader, the smart fridge would be one of the few enablers of SmartLabel, the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.-designed QR code that would divulge the presence of GMOs and a host of other characteristics of a food product.
  • Removal of suspect ingredients: Minimally processed foods and those with fewer preservatives would spoil quickly in my old fridge. Smart fridge designers may be able to create new compartments, different temperature zones, air circulation to keep foods from spoiling – especially with the help of food R&D teams. Why not add an electronic nose to tell you what exactly is causing that smell.
  • Knowing more about your food: Whether it’s through the SmartLabel or some simpler web communication from a processor, consumers could find what field or ranch grew a food product, maybe other steps along the supply chain.
  • Social issues (fair trade, sustainability, animal welfare): Processors with a social co message could convey that on the trip between the freezer and the frying pan.
  • Millennials: They are the connected generation.

Some of you will think this stuff is way out there. And at $3,000 minimum, $5,000 on the upper end, this is pricey. But I never foresaw Amazon’s Alexa or self-driving vehicles either.