2017 R&D Team of the Year: Tyson Foods

Our large-company R&D Team of the Year continues the drive for higher-value processed foods.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

RnDTeam GraphicTyson Foods has two reasons to celebrate. Not only did the product development team win in the large-size company category of our R&D Teams of the Year poll, but the company is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its R&D facility, the Discovery Center.

Tyson was our very first Processor of the Year, in 2005, and the Discovery Center was just a steel skeleton when we visited Springdale, Ark. Tyson was still overwhelmingly focused on commodity meat and poultry but the clear company goal back then was to grow the value-added end of those businesses – meaning prepared foods. The Discovery Center was physical commitment to that goal.

The 100,000-sq.-ft. R&D center was built on the company's Springdale campus, housing 19 kitchens, a pilot plant and a packaging innovation lab. It cost $52 million back then and has seen many upgrades since.

"Now we have two fully integrated state-of-the-art Discovery Centers -- in Springdale, Ark., and Downers Grove, Ill.," explains Craig Bacon, senior vice president of corporate R&D. "They’re the hub of exploration for our company, allowing us to leverage rapid prototyping and scientific approaches to understanding product attributes important to consumers. This is where our team discovers, learns, inspires and creates."

Tyson Discovery Center

That second one, in suburban Chicago, is the result of Tyson's biggest commitment to be a value-added, branded processor. The company in mid-2014 bought Hillshire Brands, which was a two-year-old reincarnation of Sara Lee. It was Tyson's biggest acquisition ($8.55 billion) and firmly positioned the company higher on the value chain with Ballpark hot dogs, Hillshire lunchmeats and Jimmy Dean breakfast products. There still was that comfortable feeling of animal protein, but with lots of opportunity to branch into new areas.

Tyson has nearly 300 people devoted to R&D: chefs, food scientists, sensory scientists, packaging and process engineers, regulatory experts and registered dietitians.

The R&D team also is supported by an Insights and Innovation Team, a separate team that provides insights on consumer and market trends -- demographic, environmental, economic and social trends and shifts in the marketplace, etc.

"Over the past decade, the R&D team has generated $25 billion in cumulative sales from product innovation and $267 million in savings," says Bacon. "In just the past two years (FY2014-FY2016), our innovation net revenue growth increased 21 percent."

Have you seen the Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chalupa? It's the first taco shell made entirely of marinated, all-white crispy chicken. Marisa Thalberg, chief marketing officer at Taco Bell Corp., called it “our next big, fun and craveable innovation." The shell is made with 4 oz. of marinated, all-white-meat, antibiotic-free chicken "kicked up with bold Mexican spices and seasoning." And it was developed by the team at Tyson.

It wasn't the first collaboration between Tyson and Taco Bell. The Quesalupa was launched during the 2016 Super Bowl. Taco Bell went to Tyson to figure out how to seal melted pepper jack cheese between two tortillas, which formed a singular shell for the usual mix of beef, lettuce, sour cream and tomatoes. It reportedly took the Tyson Foods and Taco Bell teams about three years and 2,100 hours to come up with that innovation – which also necessitated unique equipment built by hand.

Other novel introductions of the past year (which you can check out here):

  • Tyson Tastemakers – Originally available only through e-commerce, specifically Amazon Fresh, these meal kits start with protein but add exotic ingredients so home cooks can easily create carne asada street tacos, Thai lemongrass pork belly and piri-piri chicken. Now they're coming to refrigerated grocery cases.
  • Jimmy Dean Delights Frittatas – Delights a few years back took the Jimmy Dean brand into the microwavable breakfast category, focusing on trends toward high protein but low-carbs. Frittatas is the newest sub-line, the light, quiche-like breakfasts coming in bacon & spinach, turkey sausage & bacon and turkey sausage & veggies.
  • Jimmy Dean Stuffed Hash Browns -- Stuffed full of meat and cheese, the innovative product wraps all the goodness consumers love into a portable, ready-in-minutes, ultra-crispy (thanks to a crisping sleeve) potato hash brown.

"All of our new products are driven by consumer insights," says Bacon. "Our innovation efforts continue to bring to market a wide variety of new products that meet consumers' desires for fresh food, more protein and convenience with offerings that can be eaten seamlessly throughout the day."

It's apparent R&D is an important growth engine for the company. "We continue to drive growth through strong innovation as evidenced by our retail innovation vitality index," explains Bacon. "The index measures the percent of our net revenue that comes from innovations launched over a three year horizon, with the best in class range hovering between 13-15 percent. In fiscal year 2016, our index remained at a best in class level of 14 percent."

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