Editorial Views: The Far Side of R&D
Politically correct behavior forbids stereotyping groups. Having been educated and employed as a food scientist for many years, I feel this aversion to typecasting should extend to those involved in R&D.
Unfortunately, having worked in that area as long as I have, I have built a litany of anecdotes which supports the view of food scientists as a “unique” crowd, to speak euphemistically. Our characteristics often include a brand of humor in the tradition of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” cartoons and an unfailing sense of worth in what we can contribute to a business...the image of spectacles and pocket protectors notwithstanding.
The darker side of “scientific” humor was impressed upon me at my first job at International Multifoods’ technical center. It was said that one moody R&D scientist had tried to strangle a co-worker with a computer cord. The co-worker that passed this information on to me somehow found this more acceptable than if he had used, say, a telephone cord; a tool more befitting a salesman, I guess.
Jobs tend to have their own special perks, and R&D is no exception. For example, while analytical tests only require ounce-size samples, experimental batches that produce those ounces both require and produce hundreds of pounds of food material.
Food scientists can take home excess experimental product. Samples from my processed meat projects were great. However, I was single at the time, and there was a limit to how much sausage I (and my cat) could eat.
I have since had access to quantities of Mexican food, salads, potato and tortilla chips, cheese sauces and puddings, among other things. It sounds like it would cut a food bill, but you tend to tire of the products you smell and look at every day. Besides, what do you exactly do with 500 pounds of leftover gelatin dessert? (Let your mind wander!) Actually, the plant manager suggested we give it to the plant employees. Watching 200 production workers fighting for 500 pounds of “Jell-O” was not a pretty sight. By the way, companies do donate food, but liability, logistics and expense are concerns.
In one salvage endeavor, I tried to find a home for severely caked dry rice pilaf. Our normal “taker,” the county jail, did not want it—though I did think my promotional effort, “Do hard time with hard rice!” should have generated some interest.
Keys to Formulation SuccessThrough my years of product development, I have developed three basic principles for developing formulae.
1. Add sugar. Sugar makes everything taste better.
2. If sugar does not make the product taste better, add garlic. Garlic makes everything taste better.
3. The product should not resemble “road kill.” This can be a problem in foods where tomatoes are heavily used.
I liked formulating for foodservice better than retail because, though the pressure was sometimes intense, time frames from product concept to a production run were generally shorter. (If you like pressure to complete projects on time, however, try working for a monthly publication!)
At one mid-size company, my technical department’s “fastest” success came when we presented a prototype to a major fast food chain in three days and a production run—which the customer approved—in two weeks. To develop products in these time periods, I have three more pieces of advice.
1. Buy samples of new ingredients at the nearest grocery store.
2. Ignore protocol, such as first obtaining P.O. numbers from your purchasing department or being concerned about first obtaining samples, when ordering production quantities of ingredients. (Hey, the grocery store “sort of” had the same stuff.)
3. To keep things moving, call on every favor owed you by every department since you started with the company.
If you are appalled by some of this, that is okay. I was too. The University of Minnesota did not teach product development this way. Large corporations normally do not operate this way either. The main downside, of course, is that marketing then expects the same performance with the next new product. It all looks so simple.
Despite a seemingly inexhaustible supply of humorous material in every lab, there are humorless R&D types. As for myself, while I do not use a pocket protector, on certain days that I feel unusually abused, I do regret it when I’m using a battery-operated laptop computer.