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Hormel Foods R&D Tends to Tradition and Innovation

Dec. 9, 2008
Product development at Hormel means integrating formulation with process innovation, new products with support of hallowed, 70-year-old brands.

As Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Ettinger says in our main story, tradition and innovation coexist in harmony at Hormel Foods. This symbiotic relationship results in homegrown products and line extensions as well as strategic acquisitions.

To continue growing its portfolio of products, Hormel Foods relies on an aggressive research and development team that is charged with pushing the envelope. This group is led by Phil Minerich who became vice president of research and development in 2006. 

Product and process and development are uniquely intertwined at Hormel’s research and development center, behind the corporate headquarters in Austin, Minn.

“The process is multidisciplinary,” says Minerich, who has 32 years in the company, including a stint as research scientist of packaging, which is part of research and development’s domain. “We rely on the resources of teams of people working inside and outside the company who are focused, but always open to new ideas.”

The research and development center sits behind the corporate headquarters in Austin, Minn. It serves all Hormel Foods units, although Jennie-O Turkey Store and recently acquired Farm John maintain their own R&D groups.

Several divisions make up the research and development group: sensory and shelf-life group, process authority group, product development team, process development team, applied research, regulatory affairs and labeling, packaging, microbiological and chemistry lab.

Minerich tries to balance efforts between truly new products and support and further development of old brands; between retail products and foodservice ones; between the formulations or reformulations necessitated by some novel processes and food safety. He estimates 60 percent of his department’s efforts are spent supporting existing products and brands and 40 percent is spent developing truly new products.

There are a couple things we [Hormel as a company] do very well,” Minerich says:
Convenience foods — canned foods, Compleats (the company’s shelf-stable entrees), single-serve microwavable items:

  • Fresh meats — deli, products that require cooking (bacon, turkey, hams and pork roasts)
  • Value-added meals — turkey burgers, marinated raw meat cuts, heat-and-serve beef roast

The hallway between the research and development center and the pilot plant holds a number of U.S. patent certificates, for processes such as making bacon bits, fast dissolving bouillon cubes and thickened hydrolyte isotonic beverage.

Looking ahead, some current hot initiatives include reducing sodium in many products, creating single-serve portions of familiar products and further developing the company’s microwave meal lines. Also, there is an ongoing effort to extend the packaging and process technology from Compleats into new areas.

“Our focus is always on delivering wholesome, nutritious and great-tasting products to our consumers,” Minerich says. “It’s a proud moment for our team when a new product is featured at one of our consumers’ tables for dinner.

The Microwave Is Hot for Hormel
The microwave oven has been very good for Hormel … and vice-versa. A significant share of Hormel’s foods can be cooked, right in their packages, by the radar ranges, and Hormel has introduced several innovations – in process, package and formulation – that have advanced the state of microwavable foods.
The company called it “good fortune” when “cutting-edge packaging technology landed on the company’s doorstep on Dec. 31, 1982. The package was a semirigid, multilayered plastic tray with an airtight lid. Retortable and vacuum-packed, it could keep foods fresh for 12, maybe 18, months without refrigeration or freezing.
After a long development effort, Top Shelf entrees were introduced in 1987. The pioneering product may have been too far ahead of its time because it never really gained significant market share. Hormel changed the name and some of the processes over the years, but stuck with the basic technology and finally hit paydirt last year under the name Hormel Compleats.
Packaging development also led to microwavable single servings of popular Hormel products, primarily for lunches, including Hormel chili, Dinty Moore stews and Mary Kitchen corned beef hash. Those in turn led to Kid’s Kitchen shelf-stable entrees and Micro Cup soups and entrees.
Another hot product is microwave bacon. Hormel first developed a microwavable bacon in 1988, in a unique package that simulated broiling but was not precooked. That has evolved into Microwave Ready bacon.
Two Awards for the Lab Folks
Awards for sound science are a valued addition to the hallways of the research and development center at Hormel Foods. Two awards were presented to the group in 2008.
The microbiology lab achieved the American Assn. of Cereal Chemists (AACC International) Accuracy Award for microbiological analysis for having the most accurate and precise results of any private or public lab participating in the AACC proficiency sample program. The lab also won the Accuracy Award in 2000 and has received an “outstanding” rating every year since 1998.
The microbiology lab analyzes samples quarterly as part of this program and sends its results to the AACC, which compares Hormel Foods’ results with all other participating laboratories to determine if the lab is properly detecting the presence or absence of pathogens.
The chemistry lab placed second in accuracy for its analytical procedures and techniques to measure cholesterol by the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) Laboratory Proficiency Program (LPP) — the most extensive and respected program of its type in the world. For the last five years, the lab has placed in the top three for cholesterol testing.
The AOCS LPP cholesterol test examines whether the lab correctly measures the amount of cholesterol in a product sample, which is important for nutritional labeling. Bruce Franta, senior chemist at Hormel Foods, developed this method of measurement.
“These awards are proof that our laboratory consistently produces error-free results for our customers” says Phil Minerich, vice president of research and development. “Plant operations, quality control, our customers and regulatory agencies can trust our products are safe and properly labeled when they are tested by our lab.”

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