Has Product Development Stagnated?

Jan. 21, 2008
I think product development has stagnated … but what do you think? Let’s all argue via my online blog.

Let’s face it, 2007 was a rough year for the food industry. Food safety problems were caused by contaminated ingredients from China, deteriorating plant structures and the seemingly inexplicable appearance of E. coli in meat and even vegetables.

Plus scandals, more consolidation, higher prices for basic ingredients, demands from stockholders for a better bottom line, the encroachment of private label lines, pressure by nanny groups to change advertising directed at children, consumer watchdog groups clamoring for the industry to provide “healthier” foods. A lot of those pressures led to less investment in R&D, I think, which resulted in fewer innovative new products.

Maybe I’m just blowing off steam … which is something I now do three times a week (at least officially). Back on September 21 I started to blog on www.FoodProcessing.com. For you novices, that’s short for web log, kind of an online diary of the author. Except it’s evolved into a dialog: I tell you what I think, you tell me what you think of what I think. Or just tell me whatever makes you think. You can do it anonymously or otherwise; heck, even nicknames or screen names (labfoodie@kraft) are acceptable.

For the past three months, I’ve just been getting my feet with this blog, writing about whatever I want. I’m fascinated by market research reports, so you’ll see a lot of those in there, along with my commentary. I’ve gotten a few comments, but nothing that’s started a true donnybrook among food processing professionals. But that’s what I’m really looking for.

Don’t you agree food product development has stagnated? When I started writing about new products in 1991, I regularly saw true innovation. Products that opened entirely new categories (I remember the first bagged salad, early energy bars, enhanced waters). Now, an organic version of canned tomatoes is trumpeted as innovation. That’s sad.

Don’t you think part of the reason for this stagnation is many of those pressures I mentioned earlier? If not directly (“New products that require new processes involve a health risk we won’t take”), then at least indirectly, with all those pressures (and lawsuits) drawing money away from R&D?

If you travel abroad, aren’t you amazed by the novelty of products in other countries? Why can’t we create foods like that?

Anyway, that’s my thinking. And that will be my blog entry on our about Jan. 4. If you agree our product development has stagnated, let me know. If you disagree, tell me why you think otherwise. See my blog entry “Why I think product development is lagging” to register your comments. You can even debate with other commentators besides me.

As long as it’s a new year, let me also share my wishes for the food industry in 2008. If you want to adopt them as your new year’s resolutions, so be it. If you have other resolutions, for yourself or the food industry at large, tell them to me via my blog.

My resolutions:

  • First, send the message to consumers that food safety is No. 1. Convince them you have systems in place to ensure that food safety issues are being addressed and that they can trust you to solve the problems.
  • Do your best to provide the foods they love to buy, and they will be the ultimate deciders of what you produce.
  • Food prices are dependent on the supply of basic ingredients. Do we want ethanol or do we want lower food prices? Are we willing to pay taxes to help the farming community or not?
  • Please, please simplify your labels and use symbols for “healthier” lines of products.
  • Work with, not against, the media – both trade and consumer. The food industry is notorious for its closed mouth attitude with the press, ironic since its job is to fill mouths. When they call you, please respond. Although a journalist may start out with one angle on a story, your cooperation and quote may be just the ticket to change perceptions.
  • It’s time to stop being defensive. Processors want, and have always wanted, to produce safer, delicious, healthier fare and you should inform consumers of that fact. After all, you feed your families the same products you make.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, prosperous 2008 for all of you from all of us at Food Processing. We look forward to trying the wonderful foods you produce. Bon appetit!

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