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2014 Processor of the Year: A 'New' Company Deserves a New R&D Center

Dec. 1, 2014
WhiteWave is building a world-class research center in Colorado.

"At heart, we are creators. We’re creating a new kind of food company, one that can shape and define the future of food." That promotional copy, from the website and other marketing materials, also helps define the product development philosophy at WhiteWave Foods.

Recall that its two main legacy companies, WhiteWave, the soymilk company, and Horizon Organic Dairy, were created to develop alternatives to commodity, mainstream milk. Although many products and a few acquired companies have been added over the years, a common thread is making alternative food choices mainstream and connecting with a category of consumers who are underserved by the biggest consumer packaged goods firms.

However, another common thread – considering the International Delight coffee creamers and the organic produce of Earthbound Farm – is being relegated to the refrigerated cases of the grocery store. WhiteWave took a small but calculated step toward the center aisles this past summer with the launches of Horizon boxed macaroni & cheese and crackers, in both organic and made-with-organic (at least 70 percent organic ingredients) varieties. More on those later.

Another common thread is GMO labeling. WhiteWave as a company has committed to supporting national GMO labeling. "We advocate national, mandatory GMO labeling in the U.S. and have given more than $1 million in support of labeling efforts since 2012," says a company statement.

But this is no startup or niche company. The product mix is broad for a $3.4 billion (in sales) company. Organic dairy products, nondairy products, organic produce, coffee creamers and ready-to-drink beverages and, most recently, macaroni & cheese, crackers and frozen nondairy desserts. It keeps Wendy Behr, senior vice president of research and development and sustainability, on her toes.

So does the new building. As we went to press, WhiteWave was building a new R&D center in Louisville, Colo., six miles up the road from North American headquarters in Broomfield. The approximately $15 million, 50,000-sq.-ft. facility, scheduled to open in April, will quadruple the space devoted to product development.

Specific to R&D, it will house 50 or so people, the usual mix of food scientists, culinarians, dietitians and nutritionists but also packaging engineers. It will have labs for food development, packaging and quality assurance, a pilot plant, test kitchen and areas to collaborate with retail customers.

While it will be the focal point for WhiteWave North America's product development, "centers of excellence" currently remain at the separate business units: Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, Calif., Alpro in Ghent, Belgium, and So Delicious in Eugene, Ore.

WhiteWave North America debuted 50 new products in the past year and plans more than that for 2015.

Perhaps the most interesting launches of the past year are those Horizon products, crackers and macaroni & cheese. The Horizon brand branched into various cheese products starting early on, and from there it was a small step into cultured products, eggs, egg whites and butter – all of them organic (and all of them refrigerated). But the company decided to try the brand in shelf-stable, packaged goods. Just as audacious, the mac & cheese and cracker products were launched in both organic and "made-with-organic" options. They are the first products in the Horizon portfolio that are not fully organic.

The latter are made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients, with the other ingredients being on the USDA organic program-approved list. It was a carefully calculated risk. "By offering different levels of organic foods, we're making them accessible and affordable for more consumers," Behr says.

The launches also test Horizon's legs in the center of the store. "We looked very carefully over the years at where we could expand the Horizon brand," she continues. "Horizon's such a trusted brand with moms. First with our milk and then with our cheeses, it fills a lot of lunchboxes. It was a natural progression to provide these [mac & cheese and crackers] as healthy snacking options."

She also adds, "There are a number of categories we'd like to get into."

The past year also saw the introductions of more nondairy milks. After developing an almond milk in 2011 and regular (sweetened) coconut milk in 2013, 2014 saw an almond-coconut blend and unsweetened coconut milk, plus the return of a soy-based Holiday Nog (no eggs, either) at year-end. The company is just rolling out cashewmilk. "Consumers tell us it's creamier than skim milk and it has just 60 calories and no saturated fat," says Behr.

Other significant developments were sugar-free, fat-free coffee creamers under the International Delight brand.

Food safety

For a medium-sized company, WhiteWave deals with a lot of allergens. Of the "big eight" allergens, WhiteWave manufactures with five: soy, dairy, eggs, wheat and tree nuts. Managing allergen contamination issues and food safety in general is Tom Wiester, vice president of food safety and quality assurance -- who has one of the longest tenures in the company, having started with the original soymilk company WhiteWave in 2004.

At WhiteWave, food safety and quality assurance reside in the supply chain, which enables Wiester to impact procurement, product development and manufacturing.

In addition to the allergens, he manages quality and safety programs that include the Global Food Safety Initiative (all WhiteWave manufacturing facilities have achieved level 3 certification of SQF, the highest level), International Standards Organization, organic, non-GMO, kosher, halal, sustainability, vendor and third-party requirements.

"We manage a central laboratory here [in Broomfield] and push the methods, standards and calibrations out to all our satellite locations. Each of our manufacturing facilities has a lab, but it's the local team here that provides the training and the specifications for all those labs."

His group also has to hold to the same strict standards more than 700 producers and suppliers around the globe and some 60 co-manufacturers. A new initiative he's just rolling out is the WhiteWave Foods Quality Management System. "It's a risk-based audit-style approach that makes sure every activity is defined, every set point is specified, every attribute is monitored and any deviation is managed."

Wiester says the company is very proud of the quality systems it's built into its own plants, but it wants those same standards among its suppliers and partners. "We know it’s important to manage risks across the business," he adds.

'Sustainability in everything we do'

Partly because of its heritage, WhiteWave has a strong commitment to sustainability. It's a permeating philosophy that starts in R&D; indeed sustainability is part of Behr's title.

"We integrated sustainability and research and development a couple of years ago," she says. "We start all our new product development with an eye on sustainability.

"Uniting the best of big and small [companies] also means maintaining constant focus on our environmental and social responsibilities. We work to reduce waste, water usage and greenhouse gas emissions throughout our operations, focusing on our plants and our company-owned farms," she says.

Since 2006, WhiteWave has increased its production volume by 56 percent, but reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent, its waste to landfill by 28 percent and water usage by 6 percent.

"Whether it's our footprint, packaging or sourcing practices, we are always searching for better ways to produce food and advance the global community by conducting our business responsibly," Gregg Engles, chairman and CEO, writes in the company's first corporate social responsibility report, published (in digital form only, of course) this past summer.

The company uses palm oil in its coffee creamers, and joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2010. "We set a goal to purchase all roundtable-certified palm oil by 2015, but our International Delight team really got behind this and we achieved that in 2012," Behr says.

And its Dallas manufacturing plant received U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification in 2014.

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