Modern Expectations For Breakfast Foods Present Challenges For Plant Operations Teams

March 11, 2013
Plant managers wrestle with realities where the need for innovation mingles with the need for productivity.

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.

Dawning of a new breakfast

General Mills' Suzie Crockett was a key source in a recent Smithsonian magazine article ("Can Technology Save Breakfast," June 2012) about how the food industry is going about making foods healthier. Considering it was written for a consumer audience, it's remarkable that the tone of the article is somewhat sympathetic to food processors grappling with maintaining the competitiveness of multi-million dollar brands while trying to offer higher nutritional value.

"I did see and taste hope for a better nutritional future," author Corby Kummer notes.

"Nestlé is working to simplify the ingredients in some of its popular foods, taking out everything artificial and all preservatives and limiting the ingredients on the label to five recognizable components… Next is...Coffee-Mate, hardly a health food, but a product practically everyone uses. Horrifying as the ingredient list has always been, the new Natural Bliss line is made with [just] milk, cream, sugar and natural flavors."

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.

Key Technology Inc., Walla Walla, Wash., provides conveying and sorting systems to food processors and other industries. Clients include potato processors who make ready-to-cook hash brown patties and fruit and nut processors, says John Kadinger, market manager for Key.

"When our breakfast food clients come to us, they are mainly concerned with process efficiencies," Kadinger says. "They are looking at how they can improve those processes and reduce their costs. Cost of labor is always an issue, so if there are ways to add automation and improve the process efficiencies, they are always interested in that."

John McIsaac, vice president of business development for Reiser , Canton, Mass., agrees. "Clients are looking for efficiency in their operations. They want to produce more with fewer resources."

Reiser manufactures and markets portioning and forming equipment for meat and cheese processing, including equipment that makes sausages. Some of the best-selling models include skinless sausage machines that can increase output by 30 percent, and equipment that allows for quick changeover.

Horizon's Baker notes that processors of some breakfast foods fall into the dry environment group that must pay especially close attention to the issue of combustible dust.

In part due to high profile incidents of the past 10 years, the National Fire Prevention Administration has issued new regulations regarding the risks of combustible dust. Those regulations affect candy makers, cereal mills and bakers as well as other food and manufacturing entities, but enforcements varies from state to state, and awareness is far from uniform, Baker says.

Nice and easy

A recent study by Mintel indicated that consumers who eat breakfast regularly are more likely to seek more nutritious foods at breakfast time that at other times of the day. Breakfast foods innovations making the news recently include complete-nutrition "liquid breakfast" beverages marketed by General Mills and Kellogg. One tentatively called BFast from General Mills is in test marketing, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Other new players in the breakfast field include plenty of foods made with whole grains, and product such as granola bars that feature a Greek yogurt coating, or blueberry-acai superfruit formulas.

Equipment companies note that food processors want solutions like dense phase conveying, which allows for a gentler handling of foods, and portioning equipment that is precise so that the cost of better ingredients is not exacerbated by a casual approach to waste.

"We're seeing more and more baked goods producers extend their product lines by offering gluten-free products," says Andy Sigrist, product specialist with Unifiller Systems, Delta, British Columbia. "Gluten-free ingredients can be more expensive, so cost control through precise depositing is key."

Gluten-free dough also has noticeably different behavioral characteristics, Sigrist notes. "Gluten-free dough tends to be more viscous, sticky, tough to shape and handle. Our equipment is designed and updated specifically to keep these kinds of trends in mind."

Unifiller Systems recently supplied equipment to an open lab facility for the production of health, fruit and granola bars. The facility provides access to bakers and food producers for testing and developing new products that can be produced efficiently and effectively on automated equipment. The company also works with processors who make yogurt, breakfast muffins, frozen waffles and pancakes and scones.

Sigrist identifies seven key concerns of those processors:

  • Automate production so everything runs seamlessly and reduce production staff
  • Prevent human effort, repetitive strain and other workplace injuries
  • Increase production capacity and optimize production for a greater yield
  • Accurate portion control to meet ingredient labeling standards
  • Solutions that minimize hand contamination or fluctuations in process that can result from human error
  • Reduce raw material and finished product waste
  • Equipment that is designed for rapid sanitation and quick, tool-free changeover

Perhaps the ultimate in healthful breakfast foods is fresh fruit. "We have a couple of customers that do packaged sliced apples, and they are using our sorters," Key's Kadinger notes. "The apples will come in with the stickers, and they are sliced with the stickers, so the sorters help them remove slice with stickers or the seeds."

Sliced apples in single-serve packaging was a novel idea just a few years ago, but now it's a growing product line.

"Those are being offered as healthful alternative breakfast foods," Kadinger says. "You will now find them in QSRs [quick-serve restaurants] to replace the hash browns or French fries."

Another option is the tubular drag cable conveyor, such as developed by Cablevey Conveyors Oskaloosa, Iowa. The company says the product has become a choice for product movement through all phases of breakfast cereal production. The system gently moves cereals through an enclosed tube without the use of air.

The system is critically applicable where product can become particularly damaged, where contamination would be prevalent or where dust accumulation can be excessive, such as end-of-line processing from coating through packaging.

"In the cereal production marketplace, quality and product safety are very high profile issues," said Gary Schliebs, process engineer with Plus One Percent Engineered Solutions  Albury, New South Wales, Australia. The company engineers solutions for the food industry in Australia. "If a consumer has a contaminated product because of a foreign object or allergens, this is getting a huge focus from manufacturers. They are committed to cleanliness and hygiene, and keeping contaminants out of their systems."

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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