Modern Expectations For Breakfast Foods Present Challenges For Plant Operations Teams
Plant managers wrestle with realities where the need for innovation mingles with the need for productivity.
By David Phillips, Plant Operations Editor | 03/11/2013
Breakfast foods can be as unchanging as, well, oatmeal. But like any segment in the food business, the expectations of consumers — and by extension the demands on the food company — are also subject to change and innovation. And for those on the operations side, that means the next adaptation headache may be right around the corner, whether that's a matter of adjusting for a new formulation that just doesn't behave the same way in the process or installing new equipment for an additional package format.
Example No. 1: Suzie Crockett is a vice president-level technology officer for health and nutrition at General Mills, Minneapolis, where she also leads the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, which helps the company come up with its overall strategy for making its breakfast foods "better-for-you."
And if that were not enough, she also blogs for the company on its Taste of General Mills consumer blog site.
"Part of this commitment is to continuously improve the health profile of our existing products…" she wrote recently in a blog post. "These improvements are strongly tied to what consumers tell us (they want): healthy, great-tasting foods that fit their lifestyles. However, they also tell us they won't compromise on taste. So the guiding principle behind all our health improvements is the maxim: 'it's not nutrition unless people eat it.'"
Example No. 2: Chobani (who was selected as Food Processing's 2012 Processor of the Year) Norwich, N.Y., has in short order not only won a horse race to become the leading U.S. brand of Greek-style yogurt, it is now the leading overall brand of yogurt, outdistancing competitors that had been established for three or four decades rather than five or six years. Chobani does not have a relax-while-you-are-ahead mentality, so this year it will introduce several new SKUs, with a particular focus on broadening the packaging options offered to customers.
This will include a product called Chobani Flip. It's not revolutionary to present yogurt and its fruit and granola or other flavoring ingredients in separate segments of a container, but it is new to Chobani. Combine this with a new Chobani Champions tube package, and we can guess that the company's production team has been kept on its toes. Some of the changes will take place at the company's brand new, outsized plant in Twin Falls, Idaho.
General Mills will continue to make incremental changes to its products as consumers continue to push the matrix of nutrition and flavor demands. And, according to media reports, Chobani is working on new innovations including frozen products, and may even consider developing products outside of Greek-style yogurt.
Where the need for innovation mingles with the need for productivity (and with food and employee safety concerns) is where plant managers wrestle with realities as they produce foods for what is often called "the most important meal of the day."
Food safety in the morning
For these companies, and others making breakfast foods, production staff must work with product developers while continually staying on top of their own concerns. Chief among them, of course, is avoiding food contamination, says Todd Baker, technical director with conveyor-maker Horizon Systems , Lawrence, Kan.
"The big business driver in cereal — as with all food processing across the board — is food safety," Baker says. "Second, at least in our arena, is complying with combustible dust regulations."
Lately food companies expect those systems to have higher level of hygiene and to protect against dust proliferation and cross-contamination. Sorting equipment might also be expected to aid in traceability initiatives.
"Five years ago no one thought much about bacteria in a cereal facility, but that has changed," Baker says. "There is now a much higher awareness of how bacteria can enter a plant and how it can reside around various pieces of equipment and processes."
One of the reasons for the change is that bakers and cereal makers had been working with the assumption that all bacteria would be killed in processing. But evidence showed that to be a false assumption, and those same companies realized further precautions were warranted. Another reason is that there is now a heightened effort and greater ability to pinpoint the cause of an illness before there is a large-scale outbreak.
"A few years back there wasn't the ability to trace, so when someone was sick they were just diagnosed with food poisoning," Bakers notes. "Now the medical professional can test and if it is determined that it was caused by Salmonella it can be traced back to the facility and even the lot number. They can trace it back to your facility and your piece of equipment if they find it. One bad situation can take us all down."
Customers are now looking for conveying systems with built-in sanitation capabilities, and food processors who work with dry materials are beginning to adopt HACCP and other programs designed to keep pathogens away from products.
"Looking at traffic flow patterns and segregations of certain functions [like] you have seen in meat and dairy — you are now starting to see that in cereal and baking facilities," Baker says. "So if their pneumatic conveyer is made to travel through several material zones, they will choose pressure of vacuum to avoid having any of that material leaking out. A few years ago we didn't really see that get much consideration. It used to be all about efficiencies."
That's not to say that efficiencies and productivity no longer matter, Baker says, but processors are now looking at things like shortened changeover and reduction of down time to make up for any efficiencies that are lost when they operate more carefully.