Criminalist Finds Patterns in Food Industry Chaos

Criminalist finds patterns and direction out of chaos for the food industry. Click to read more of this FoodProcessing.com exclusive on Suzy Badaracco, CEO and President of Tualatin, Ore.-based Culinary Tides, a criminalist specializing in forensic toxicology.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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A criminalist specializing in forensic toxicology, Suzy Badaracco, CEO and President of Tualatin, Ore.-based Culinary Tides, could be the inspiration for a character on the popular TV show "CSI: Criminal Scene Investigation." Instead, using military style profiling learned from the FBI and Scotland Yard, she tracks the body of evidence to successfully predict and profile trends in health, ingredients, consumers, packaging and manufacturing for the retail food and foodservice industries and monitors food safety legislation and defense.

How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you, we asked. "I started as a criminalist specializing in forensic toxicology, where I learned military style profiling and forecasting while studying with the FBI and Scotland yard to predict serial killers, find patterns at crime scenes and the like," says Badaracco, who earned her Bachelors of Science degree in Criminalistics from Michigan State University. "When you go to a crime scene, you are literally looking for patterns -- how to pick out something from the base line going forward -- and put together facts that don't appear to have a connection. That's how you predict where a serial killer is going to hit. You have to find a pattern so you can stay one step ahead of the criminal to catch him."

Suzy Badaracco, CEO and President of Tualatin, Ore.-based Culinary Tides
Suzy Badaracco, CEO and President of Tualatin, Ore.-based Culinary Tides

After a successful career in Criminalistics, Badaracco enrolled at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, where she earned an Associates degree in Culinary Arts, and then to Washington State University for a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition. She worked as an analytical chemist, corporate chef, nutrition specialist, trainer, and knowledge manager for Mintel, USDA, Nestle, T. Marzetti, and Ajinomoto Inc. In 2004, she founded Culinary Tides, a forecasting company focusing on the birth and death of trends, rather than the statistics generated once a trend hits an industry.

"I took my skills from Criminalistics and morphed them for the food industry; the techniques and principles are universal really," explains Badaracco. "It seemed like the perfect combination for the job. It takes being fluent in several different languages to track what I track. If I am to move seamlessly between them, I must be fluent in their language too, or everything just remains chaos. I've worked with the USDA, I've testified in court as an expert witness, I can speak to chefs, I can speak technology and research, and that's how I can find patterns out of what appears to be chaos. My entire job as a forecaster is to not only find patterns, but also direction in chaos, just as I did when I was a Criminalist. I combine this with competitor intelligence and global data to give clients a complete picture for a baseline and going forward. That's exactly what I did as a criminalist."

Badaracco uses military style forecasting, which has a longer history than business intelligence techniques, and she believes it is more reliable. "I track 23 players/industries to see what will affect the food industry," she says. Her presentations begin with the story of six blind men and the elephant. "The six men each touch a different part of the elephant and come to six different conclusions," she says. "That explains linear analysis, which is what many companies do -- they only understand one part of a trend.

By tracking all food, flavor, health, packaging, and consumer trends as well as tracking governments, research, technology and allies/adversaries to a trend, I present the entire elephant to a client. Then I combine this with competitor tracking to complete the picture. All this is attached to a specific actionable question or goal the company has, otherwise the information is pretty useless."

Badaracco looks for all trends. "I don't believe in fads, rather well supported and weakly supported trends," she says emphatically. "I watch for blips, shadows, and trends. The blips are dots in chaos, shadows are the birth of trends or blips coming to the front of the pack with very loose ties to other existing trends, but still a bit nonsensical. An example is white. White chocolate is coming in because it's balancing all the dark chocolate. In restaurants, we're seeing white mousse for desert. White asparagus is showing up in magazines, and cauliflower is also making an appearance. Other shadow whites coming up at the same time are white vanilla (used by Martha Stewart), white balsamic vinegar (at Trader Joe's) and white tea. It's just a guess, but they may tie into consumer desire for simplicity.

Trends, weak or strong, have a clear pattern or tie to other trends. They can be tracked and profiled and have the power to create new births or deaths. An example is the whole grain phenomenon. It's linked into regional, single grain and flat breads. It's tied into other trends and you can track it, profile it, see whose weighing in against it and what companies are doing with it. Some people track trends, meaning they just watch what's happening and stand behind the whole time. I profile the trend to see what the government is doing with it, is there a new ally coming on, or, look this company is coming out with new products -- you'd better watch out. I'm still ahead of the trend, even though it's hit the ground. Trackers are followers."

Birth and death of a trend

Health and wellness is a topic, according to Badaracco. "Say an item, like a particular fruit, pulls away from the chaos and has a voice of its own, a champion and links to other supporting trends that are sustainable, it's a birth," she explains. "Whole grain's original champion was the launch of South Beach by Kraft Foods, the first time whole grain was given a voice."

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