What are “Food Systems”?

Teacher instructing class

What are “Food Systems”?


As a land-grant institution, Auburn University has a long history of doing practical research and communicating the results of that research to the public. Auburn’s strengths have long included disciplines that are part of a “food system,” but what is a food system? Briefly, a food system encompasses every aspect of the complicated, interrelated system necessary to feed a population. That includes growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption and disposal of food and food-related items. The Auburn University Food System Institute (AUFSI) brings those strengths together in an interdisciplinary, cross-departmental venture to contribute locally, regionally, nationally and globally to the safety and quality of the U.S. food supply and the viability of different parts of the food system. We like to talk about food from “farm to fork” or “pond to plate,” but a food system also includes all of the social, political, economic and environmental contexts that affect the food supply. What do people like to eat? What should they be eating? How should food be deliver and stored? How can “food entrepreneurship” be encouraged?

On the producing and processing end of the food systems “chain,” Auburn already boasts one of the strongest aquaculture programs in the world, including work on seafood safety. Auburn also is home to the National Egg Processing Center and the Detection and Food Safety Center, which is developing innovative new ways to detect foodborne pathogens and provide technological solutions to ensure food safety.

In the area of poultry and beef safety, AU researchers are developing pathogen-intervention strategies targeting microbial hazards such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria, and multidisciplinary teams of microbiologists and food animal veterinarians are devising pathogen-reducing interventions in live cattle and chicken

AUFSI has close ties to the Alabama Department of Public Health, with ADPH personnel active on several working committees. AUFSI “virtual scholars” also train inspectors for Alabama’s vital seafood industry. “Food Defense,” like food safety, is essential for an economical and secure food supply. Any successful food defense effort depends on the ability of food professionals to accurately understand the nature of the threat environment, the spectrum of potential adversaries and how actions by those adversaries could compromise the food supply chain. Defensive awareness then must be translated into strategies that are integrated into commodity- or company-specific tactical responses—and that is part of the Food System Institute’s mission, as well.

On the other end of the “chain,” Auburn’s hotel and restaurant program maintains strong ties with restaurants, hotels and institutions. A restaurant and hotel operated by one of the nation’s premier hotel chains serves as a “lab” for students.

Clearly, Auburn’s strengths in the area of “food systems” are already formidable. What AUFSI strives to do is maximize Auburn University’s existing internal strengths and external collaborations, making researchers aware of the work of others in related disciplines but also providing them support to continue their own work. The institute’s structure also allows inclusion of researchers from other universities.

A food system includes all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population: growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items. It also includes the inputs needed and outputs generated at each of these steps. A food system operates within and is influenced by social, political, economic and environmental contexts. (from Wikipedia)