2015 R&D Trends Survey: Doing Without GMOs and PHOs

Our 44th annual R&D Survey indicates a year of regulatory challenges but less emphasis on cost control.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Sometimes we worry that we write too much about genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs) and regulatory issues, especially for you folks in product development. But the two subjects seem to be coming up a lot lately, with the latter concern focusing on an expected FDA ban on partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs).

This year especially, the two issues seem to be staring you in the face and impacting your job, although your responses to our 44th annual R&D Survey reflect the divisions on both of those two issues.

Last year was the first time we included GMOs in our list of issues that may impact your company’s R&D strategy. Then it scored poorly, garnering just 5.6 percent of first-place votes and a 681 score overall, ranking it sixth out of seven issues (this weighted score applies 7 points to a first-place vote, 1 point to a seventh-place vote, etc.). You can read the 2014 survey results at 2014 R&D Survey: Open to New Ideas

This year it moved up with a bullet, to second place in the weighted score. It captured only 11 percent of first-place votes, ranking it fourth in that category,  but it was nearly everyone’s second and third choice and had the second-lowest last-place votes.

PHOs are either your biggest worry or a non-issue. They got the second-most first place votes but also the second-most last-place tallies (coming in second to food safety on both ends of the spectrum).

Back to GMOs, when we asked if your company has or is seeking non-GMO certification, 23 percent (should that be “only 23 percent" or “a whopping 23 percent”?) answered they are going through that process.

A companion question about where your company stands on the issue shows the split: 12.9 percent are strongly opposed to genetically engineered ingredients, 12.5 percent are strongly supportive (21 percent are mildly supportive, 9.6 percent are mildly opposed and 28 percent are neutral).

Those are just two of the 20 questions we asked in our annual query about your R&D priorities for 2015. The survey was taken in March. We had 285 responses, up from 215 last year. (By the way: Thank you for taking it!)

What are you working on?

Since we presumably have a pretty static group, changes are minute from year to year. But on the very first question, “Which of the following targets are most important for your R&D efforts this year”?” there was one significant change. Cost control consistently has been in the teens – 17 percent last year and 13 percent in the two previous years. But this year only 7.5 percent of product development professionals have been told to reformulate to save some dough.

“Really new” product development, the perennial winner of that question, came in at 42 percent this year, a little higher than last year’s 39 percent but below the all-time high of 48 percent in our 2013 survey.

“New twists on old products are hot in our segment right now,” wrote Daniel Feldman, production manager for Dodo Distilleries, Salt Lake City, Utah. “This is a year to discover new products that can become permanent additions, rather than seasonal products.”

“New product lines and product categories are key to our future growth,” wrote a maker of flavored syrups.

“Developing really new products and ‘cleaning up’ current product labels are equally important,” wrote another.

“We’ve seen a nice improvement in the perception of the need for R&D’s support,” wrote a product developer at a Colorado meat company.

“To stay in the current market, products have to clean up – even the older warhorse meat products need a smart review to reduce/replace ingredients that now get scrutinized. R&D budgets have loosened up in response to current market demands.”

“Our main customers are looking for clean labels – natural meats, no preservatives, and non-GMO.”

“We are actually following two main targets – developing new products and cost control,” wrote an R&D employee at a Midwestern soup company. “Cost control with current products to position them better in the market and gain profitability.”

Except for her, with cost control so low, could that mean the checkbook is wide open this year? As for the R&D Dept. budget, 24 percent said it’s been increased and 12 percent said it’s been cut. That’s a nice 2:1 ratio, but each extreme moved only one percentage point from last year’s answers.

“It’s business as usual, higher expectations, but no cuts, so that’s a great plus,” wrote an Illinois product developer.

“It’s challenging to [do more] with the same budget, but that is part of the excitement,” wrote another.

“We expect a good year.”

While we expect some guidance any day now from the FDA on a possible ban on PHOs, most R&D Depts. seem to have that under control.

Nearly half either already have removed the precursor to trans fat or have it under control; only 7.5 percent consider it a big and looming problem.

Also expected soon from government regulators is the 2015 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As the basis for federally funded feeding programs (school lunches, Meals on Wheels, prison cafeterias) and nutrition advice, they’re wide-ranging and instructive, but their impact on the food processing industry is marginal.

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