Increased pressures, technical advances, frustrations and rewards are just some of the elements in the changing work environment of those responsible for new product development. Prepared Foods asked key R&D personnel at several companies to comment on how their work world is changing in regards to tools, tasks, tribulations and triumphs. Their comments are as follows.

Communicating Effectively

Chef Mark Kretzinger, corporate executive chef for Chef Solutions, Wheeling, Ill, better reiterates the fact that quicker and more advanced technologies help R&D people do their jobs. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he has held various culinary positions during the past 15 years and has been in product development for five years. He originally began with Ozark Salad Company, a division of Sara Lee Corporation, then transferred to Chef Solutions, for which he is currently executive chef.

“Faster analytical and microbiological testing technologies, email, and personal computers have played an important role in enabling our entire company to create a quicker-go-to market strategy.

“The ability to link our corporate chefs and technologists with our customer is a competitive advantage that is becoming critical in our industry. This culinary and technical bridge is being built on all fronts, removing the threat of an internal third party communication breakdown.”

As in many other industries, food product development has increased in speed with the assistance of improved information technology.

Solid Relationships

Sharon Herzog, director of R&D, Country Choice Naturals, Eden Prairie, Minn., has been involved in food product development for 17 years, most recently with organic foods, which has been her greatest challenge and enjoyment.

“There are several factors that have increased the speed to market, all of which involve information and experience:

  • The amount of information that is available to us has increased dramatically. With a computer on every desk, the amount of information that can be stored for later retrieval is unlimited. The Internet, which provides anonymous and immediate access to a wealth of information, can provide direction to the solutions needed.
  • Greater use of contract manufacturers as partners that have specific expertise and, often, their own R&D departments.
  • There is a greater understanding of ingredients, interactions and functionality of systems that allows developers to “jump ahead” in the development process. Partnerships with ingredient suppliers can be an integral part of this.

At some companies, a centralized database permits the sales and marketing departments to check on the status of R&D projects daily.
Interaction between departments, especially with R&D, quality control, marketing, packaging and production now takes place earlier in the development process. When we meet to discuss new products, we have to take into account our marketing mission, production capabilities, ingredient and packaging restrictions and cost parameters. This necessitates a cross-functional team that flags issues, as well as offers ideas and solutions.

“Everyone is looking at strategic partnerships that enhance performance, decrease costs and offer a better chance of a successful new product launch. Confidentiality agreements with suppliers allow for more open discussions. We interact with our grocery customers to hear directly about consumer demands.

“There will always be the thrill of seeing your product on the grocery store shelf and straightening it every time you walk by. There is a responsibility to providing a product that fulfills a consumer need. This is especially important in today's environment of focusing on health and social issues such as sustainable agriculture, genetic modification, fair trade and environmental health.”

Global Similarities

Laurence Eyres, technical and development director, New Zealand Dairy Foods, Auckland, New Zealand, a $200-million food processor, comments that he enjoys the challenge of a creative, stimulating and rewarding job.

“Two areas, in particular, enable R&D to deliver faster. The first is a defined R&D process that involves all departments (marketing, production, procurement, etc.). The second is nutrition information panel software allowing samples to be tested in-house.

“Over the years, interactions between all departments—particularly marketing, production and procurement—have increased and the quality of communication and timeliness has improved. All stakeholders are more aware of new product development projects and what problems may occur.

“Interactions with suppliers also are much more proactive. Suppliers spend more time learning the business and provide new product ideas and concept presentations. There has been a move to work with preferred suppliers so that the quality of support, information and ideas communicated is better. However, there is still not enough interaction with customers, as this information is not filtered through sales to R&D. Interactions with academia also have improved. They are presenting new product or ingredient proposals, plus research plans.

“It is frustrating to get a product to the launch stage only for it not to happen because of a change in strategic plan, brand plan or even brand or marketing managers. Change is always accepted and part of the job but change for change's sake is frustrating. However, there is great pleasure and pride in seeing your product on the market and getting positive feedback.”

The resources necessary to meet these customer concerns require additional staff with expertise in food nutrition and food safety.

Information and Speed

The ease with which information is shared has allowed the R&D department to communicate effectively with other departments, and to understand its role with respect to new product development and financial expectations, says Mary Jo Schultz, vice president—food regulatory affairs, Dawn Food Products, Jackson, Mich.

“The timeframe from new product concept to finished product introduction has steadily decreased. Due to increased speeds of communication, our ingredient suppliers, customers and in-house communication systems can deliver and demand information almost instantly. This allows us to access required ingredient information, ingredient functionality and processing specifications almost simultaneously as product development begins. Ingredient suppliers have increased their working knowledge of ingredient functionality and are sharing their technical knowledge with their customers.

“R&D, historically, has been isolated from other segments of business operations but we are seeing increased interaction with all divisions of our business. We communicate on a daily basis as to the status of R&D projects through a centralized database. Project information is also available to designated sales and marketing people, allowing them to track the status of an R&D project daily.

“R&D expectations have been realigned to meet the shelf life guidelines necessary for our customers to deliver their goods throughout the U.S. and abroad.

“Our external customers now rely on R&D departments to furnish nutrition and ingredient information about food additives, dietary concerns and allergenic ingredients. Increased product labeling information mandated by the FDA requires us to stay tuned to individual customer health concerns.

“Our customers still expect a safe food supply; therefore, we are required to keep abreast of regulations pertaining to food additives, storage temperatures, transportation of goods and scientific advancements such as genetically modified crops. The resources necessary to meet these customer concerns require additional staff with expertise in food nutrition and food safety.

The high speed of technology and communications allows R&D departments to better serve both external and internal customers. Furthermore, an increased understanding of what R&D does allows sales and marketing departments to set realistic goals, all which leads to a more efficient, harmonious work environment.