2020 Processor of the Year: R&D at Perdue Farms

Dec. 6, 2020
Having mastered all forms of animal protein, Perdue's R&D team seems ready to venture beyond.

It was a small step, and actually just a half-step, out of the traditional animal protein category, but the 2019 launch of Perdue Chicken Plus may foretell future developments for Perdue Foods.

"It truly is a remarkable product, came together on a very short timeline and filled a need in the marketplace," says Parker Hall, Perdue's vice president of research, development and innovation. An employee of eight years, he reports to Chief Marketing Officer David Zucker, and the department's reporting structure is through the Corporate Marketing Department.

Hall sits in the Perdue Foods Innovation Center in Salisbury, Md., about five miles away from the corporate campus. The building was renovated to become the center in 2004, and further updated in 2017. The team handles all product development for Perdue's growing array of animal proteins, not just chicken but also beef, pork, lamb and turkey, the latter ones coming from such acquisitions as Niman Ranch and Coleman Natural. Even pet foods, primarily treats, are developed at the Innovation Center.

New product development "starts with three simple questions: Do consumers want it? Can we manufacture it? Can we make money on it?" says Hall. "As the process moves along, we bring in [Perdue] people who can answer those questions."

The Innovation Center takes up the entire building and includes a USDA-inspected pilot plant, culinary kitchen, kitchen appliances and cooking surfaces that would be found in homes, as well as the labs, offices and other equipment and facilities typical of an R&D center. There also are areas to bring in consumers for product testing and focus groups.

There are 38 employees in the department across the disciplines of product development, process development, packaging development, sensory and product guidance, culinary, quality assurance/food safety, pilot plant and facility operations. Associates range in experience from 3 to 40 years including certified chefs, food and meat scientists (many credentialed) and a number of associates with poultry and meat plant experience.

Marketing, sales, quality, procurement and operations people complete the integrated, cross-functional teams that work on product development. "We also involve external partners, especially ingredient and packaging companies, to help us produce prototypes," says Hall.

"Early on, innovation was generally a bottom-up process, primarily product development-driven, so R&D would often inspire the ideas," he says. It's since evolved into a broader and more fluid "team."

"Through 2017, we would have an Innovation Showcase every April, inviting people from across the organization to the Innovation Center to see and comment on new products," he recalls.

As festive and focused as that one-day event was, it became impractical, as the prototypes on display were already far along, even if they didn't meet those three key questions in paragraph four. Now, consumer research and cross-functional buy-in is needed to get a new product off the ground. Marketing and Sales are now, generally, the drivers of new products.

As part of the company's 100-year anniversary, even the current process is being reconsidered and probably reinvented, with the final plan and process to come by the end of this year.

Retail is Perdue's largest market, and that's split between fresh products and ready-to-cook ones, both with value-added offerings. Foodservice and deli also are important segments. Perdue built its reputation on top-quality but unprocessed, whole birds; now adding value/further processing and convenience clearly are goals.

An interesting challenge has been assimilating and applying the science behind other meats beyond poultry. While Perdue has long been a leader in raising chickens, every acquisition seemed to bring new things to learn, and not just relating to the meats themselves but to issues and label claims such as all-natural and organic (the last requires certification of manufacturing plants).

As Chairman Jim Perdue told us, product development initially was retained at the headquarters of those acquisitions; and many of the acquired companies relied on co-manufacturers.

Eventually, it was all brought under the roof of the Innovation Center. "We want to own 100% of Perdue formulations," explains Hall.

Adding value goes beyond cuts, breading or adding grill marks. Convenience has been a big driver, and resulted in products such as Perdue Fresh Cuts, a 2019 introduction of fresh boneless, skinless chicken breasts that come diced or cut into strips so consumers can and add them straight from the package to the pan – without having to touch raw meat and saving perhaps 30 minutes of prep and clean-up time.

The pinnacle of that value-added effort, at least so far, was the 2019 introduction of Perdue Chicken Plus -- patties, tenders and nuggets that combine chicken breast meat with cauliflower and chickpeas, enough of the latter two to make a label claim of a quarter-cup of vegetables in each serving. "It wasn't easy. There was a very steep learning curve and we were on a tight timeframe," recalls Hall. "But we went from concept to commercialization in 12 months.

"That idea definitely started with consumers. Focus groups gave an overwhelming yes to combining chicken and vegetables. And while many were parents who wanted to get more vegetables into their kids, it also was adults who wanted more vegetables in their diets.

"We worked with a few key suppliers to figure out how to formulate it, combining our meat and processing expertise with their non-meat and functional ingredient knowledge. When we took it to the plant, we had to make adjustments to the processing side. Meat and vegetables handle differently, and we had to solve the vegetable handling piece of the process. Then you blend the two together to make the nugget. Everything after that step was fairly standard from the manufacturing process perspective."

But there are no 100% alternate protein products – yet. "It's always in our consideration set. We are keenly aware of what's going on around us, but nothing yet," Hall says. And Perdue is not currently seriously considering cultured meats.

Next-generation non-meat, value-added products are always under consideration "constantly," says Hall, but Perdue is not ready to tread there yet either.

The coronavirus pandemic slowed product development a bit. The company instituted a work-from-home rule till mid-October, which also limited visits from suppliers and other outsiders who could participate in the product development process. "We became experts at Zoom meetings," Hall says.

But almost all R&D employees are back in the Innovation Center now, and the reimagining of the product development process will be the final piece to kick R&D into an even higher gear.

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