2020 R&D Survey: How the Pandemic Will Set Back Product Development

June 4, 2020
According to the results of our 49th annual R&D Trends Survey, 80% of respondents expect delays; 59% are rethinking sourcing.

The coronavirus pandemic will set back product launches by weeks if not months, and it’s made 59% of product developers rethink sourcing decisions, according to Food Processing’s 49th annual R&D Survey.

You can download a copy of the R&D Survey Trends Report, complete with all of the results and their corresponding charts, via this link

Spring is always the time of year that we field this survey, so the pandemic put a unique and unusual spin on this year’s research. For better or worse, the survey was taken March 19-April 19, closed before any state began lifting restrictions, so the votes were either skewed by the darkest days of the “temporary normal” or the experience was still fresh in everyone’s mind. All these results are based on 291 responses.

What does R&D look like at food and beverage companies in 2020 and how has coronavirus impacted new product development? We answer these issues and more in our 2020 R&D Trends Survey report. Get your copy today by visiting our Ingredient Resource Library

We added two coronavirus-related questions to this year’s survey:

  • Did the coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak make you rethink any sourcing decisions? Perhaps about maintaining plants in or sourcing ingredients from China or any other foreign country? 
  • Do you think the coronavirus situation will cause a delay in product launches? How long a delay? 

To the first, 45% answered, “We’re thinking hard about this,” and another 14% said, “We’re changing sourcing or manufacturing to sites over which we have better control.”

On the second question, 52% said, “This will set us back a couple of months”; 28% answered, “A couple of weeks maybe.”

Unfortunately, we didn’t think of asking for verbatim comments on the subject … which didn’t stop a few respondents from commenting anyway. “It's too early into the world's reaction to COVID to know how much it will affect us,” wrote a product developer at a Texas commercial bakery.

Maybe it was too early, but one respondent predicted, “We’ll see a drastic change in consumer demand after this COVD-19 is over.”

“Our Research and Development has been shifted to reformulate foods and beverages that will help those with the COVID-19 virus and to help those who survive improve their immune system,” wrote Kenneth Sull, who listed as his titles chairman and chief culinary and beverage officer of Sbc Global Consultants. He sees potential in “food that improves health as related to COVID-19 pandemic.

Needless to say, the lasting effects of this crisis remain to be seen.

The annual questions

Those two were the new questions added, but the bulk of the survey is dedicated to annual questions, to see if there are subtle changes going on in product development trends. There were only a few.

Asked about your R&D Dept.’s budget, last year those respondents seeing an increase comfortably outnumbered those seeing a cut. This year, those results were reversed, with 15% seeing a decrease and 12% seeing more R&D money. “About the same” was the prevalent response.

In a question about ingredients being added or removed, the biggest jump belonged to “replacing refined grains with whole grains.” Also doubling was “removing saturated fat.” A 50% increase was recorded in “adding fiber,” and “removing added sugars” increased by 37%.

Reinforcing that last point: 16% of those that did replace added sugars did so by substituting non-nutritive sweeteners – identical (with rounding) to those that simply removed the added sugars without replacing lost sweetness; 8.5% used nutritive sweeteners that don’t have to be declared. One respondent wrote in he was excited by the potential of stevia’s rebaudioside-M variant.

Write-in comments for ingredients being removed included “all artificial flavors” (we should have thought of that!) as well as sodium nitrite, sodium erythorbate, soy and high-fructose corn syrup. Positive comments included going organic and adding healthy oils and more protein and “using natural tocopherols to prevent microbes and oxidation and extending shelf life.”

GMO labeling is an issue we’ve been tracking for a few years now, and perhaps that question has run its course. Those seeking non-GMO certification dropped by 6 percentage points but remained the top answer. Use of the GMA/Consumer Products Association SmartLabel code dropped 5 points to just 15%, while use of the USDA “BE/bioengineered” label went up 7 points to 29%.

Product development remains a team sport, with 58% confirming they do have a formal team; 34% don’t. That team certainly has R&D professionals, presumably food scientists, but increasingly it also includes (in order) representatives from marketing, manufacturing and management (that last discipline up 10 points). Finance recorded the biggest jump (+11 point), and purchasing was up 6 points.

Maybe it’s the COVID-19 effect, but the Product Development Team seems to be meeting a little less often. “Weekly or more often” is still the top answer (24%) but both “monthly” and “less than monthly” saw increases.

We also received comments with the survey results as well. Here are a few worth noting:

One company is “sourcing ingredients & equipment [for] developing cannabis products for marketing launch by summer/full launch by Q4.” But that was the only respondent mentioning cannabis.

A suburban Chicago product developer was “thinking how to follow or if we should follow the plant-based trend.”

“There are so many concepts on the table in all product categories it can be distracting,” wrote another respondent. “Anything not making sales has to revisited … so 2020 promises to be a year of experimentation as to what does the consumer want.”

Sure, but isn’t that always the case?

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