2013 Processor of the Year: ConAgra R&D Does It All

Retail, commercial, some ingredients, and now private label, the product development team is busy and varied.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Packaging too

As Berends pointed out, one of the things that makes the single-serve Bertolli and P.F. Chang's dinners novel is the MicroRite tray, developed in conjunction with tray supplier Graphic Packaging. "It's got both shielding and receptors; it directs heat where we want it and controls the energy elsewhere," explains Rob Weick, vice president of packaging.  Packaging, too, is part of RQI.

The structure also is used in Marie Callender pot pies and Healthy Choice Bakes. "It also allows one-step cooking. The consumer doesn't have to cook, peel a lid, stir, replace the lidding and repeat the process," he adds.

"My job is to develop new structures to create an outstanding consumer experience," he explains. That usually follows four goals:

  • Extreme convenience for the consumer – In addition to the MicroRite tray, Weick points to the Orville Redenbacher Pop Up Bowl and Healthy Choice Café Steamers, the latter of which uses tray-in-tray steaming technology to separate sauce from frozen ingredients, using steam to cook the meal. They won a number of packaging awards in 2008-2010.
  • Excellence in execution – "Perfect to shelf quality," as Weick puts it, "with appropriate thinking to meet the needs of both the customer and consumer." The concept includes ease of case opening, shelf loading and right sizing to meet the needs of our customer shelving systems.
  • Delivering customer needs – Again, designing the package to better meet the changing merchandising needs of retailers of all types.
  • Speed to market – "Finding new ways of doing our work that result in greater impact and efficiency to both our company and our customers [and] improving our ability to meet the needs of an ever-faster-changing consumer base."

An eye on nutrition

All this development work on products and packaging might be for naught if they didn't have the underpinnings of nutrition. Keeping an eye on that factor is Vice President Mark Andon.

"We just met our corporate goal of a 20 reduction in sodium," he announces. Products leading that charge were Hunt's tomatoes (a 40 percent reduction), Chef Boyardee canned pastas (35 percent reduction), Kid Cuisine frozen meals (35 percent reduction) and Orville Redenbacher popcorn (25 percent reduction).


Andon pursues four culinary techniques for sodium reduction:

  • Simple removal – "That works quite well for some products, such as Hunt's tomato products," he says.
  • Salt replacers – Potassium chloride and some other substitutes are used; both helped in the sodium reductions in Kid Cuisine and Chef Boyardee products.
  • Sea salt – It has more "saltiness" per milligram of sodium, so it also plays a role in in Kid Cuisine and Chef Boyardee.
  • Patented technologies – One example is Micron Salt, for which ConAgra Foods holds a patent. It's finely ground salt, just 1/500th the size of a normal salt crystal, but only works on products with a salty surface, such as Orville Redenbacher popcorn.

Andon's group also has initiatives to add whole grains, control portions and calories, create dietary variety (promoting under-consumed foods, such as grains and nuts) and promote heart health.

Andon believes he has proof ConAgra is succeeding in nutrition. He points to a 2012 survey by Health Focus International in which survey respondents rated ConAgra the best food processor at providing healthy food choices and that same year an award from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association).

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