By Barry Sackin, SNS 2014-05-01 20:38:20
Mastering the art and science of new product development within the constraints of K-12 foodservice challenges and opportunities. “YOU’RE EITHER GREEN AND GROWING OR BROWN AND DYING—AND THERE’S NO IN BETWEEN,” asserts Chuck Dinnis, director of education sales for Jennie-O Turkey Store. This is a sentiment shared by many in school nutrition, among operators and industry alike. The demand for new products (or for reformulations of existing products) is virtually constant in order to meet the continually evolving K-12 market. In the wake of the first substantive revision of menu-planning requirements in more than a decade, we have seen extraordinary changes in school meals. The regulations written to comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 added a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, prioritized whole grain-rich options and set limits on the total amount of sodium in a meal. An initial cap on proteins and grains/breads, since eliminated, combined with gradual phase-ins of thresholds for sodium and whole grains have meant that vendors continue to face a moving target in responding to the needs of their customers: K-12 menu planners. Added to the complexity of meeting federal nutrition standards is the dynamic presented by opinionated students and their concerned parents. Operators and their vendor partners face a daunting daily challenge: create menus that are nutritious, while proving acceptable to some of the toughest food critics ever faced. Developing food products that meet the strict nutritional requirements of the school meal programs is very much a science. But creating menu items that are innovative, current and not merely acceptable, but fully desired by kid customers is an art. Why Mess With Success? Product development isn’t just about creating new items. The regulatory changes for school meals virtually mandated many companies to revisit their existing portfolio of products—ones that had already proven their popularity with kids. “We had to reformulate 136 products to meet the new menu-planning requirements,” reports Brian Hoffmeier, senior director of school sales at JTM Foods Group. But reformulation is far from a straightforward solution. “The threshold to modify existing formulations is very high,” asserts Danny Goodman, vice president for product development and marketing at Don Lee Farms. If a company already is producing a menu item that customers like, changing it may be perilous. Just ask Coca-Cola, who ran into a consumer buzz saw when it changed the basic formula of its original product and ultimately punted, reintroducing its signature beverage as “Classic Coke.” The costs to reformulate an existing product can be another factor that gives a manufacturer pause. “We estimate that it cost more than $2.7 million dollars to bring our school line into conformance with the new regs,” calculates Hoffmeier. After all, changing a recipe in a commercial product isn’t like adjusting recipes in your kitchen at home or at school. In addition to the numerous research steps you’d expect—employing different ingredients, proportions, cooking processes, etc.—reformulated menu items must be tested for safety and shelf life. Plus: • New labeling must be written and approved. • If it’s a USDA Foods processed item, a product certification or CN Label application must be submitted and approved. Revised information in the End Product Data Schedule (EPDS), which is used in crediting the value of USDA Foods used against your entitlement account, also has to be approved by USDA and each state where the product will be sold. • In certain instances, product packaging may need to be reconfigured. • The inventory of a product manufactured with the old formulation must be sold off—you can’t have one product code for two different formulations. According to Hoffmeier, JTM employed three people for a full year just to manage the documentation process of the project! Schwan’s Food Service, one of the largest providers of pizza to schools, reports that it reformulated more than 60 products in four months’ time in 2012 in order to meet the new nutrition standards, particularly focusing on ensuring its whole-grain crusts complied with new requirements. For Schwan’s, this was an extension of work it actually had started more than a decade earlier. The push to offer revised products consistent with the new requirements “might have been a blessing in disguise,” says Chris Kwiat, senior director, product development for foodservice, looking at the bright side of the process. “It forced us to look at products that we might not have otherwise, and might have resulted in better products for our customers.” Salt of the Earth While the consensus in the school nutrition community is that the first sodium target in the new regulations is not too great a change and should be manageable, some product reformulations will be required initially—and certainly in anticipation of the next target (due to be implemented in 2017). It will be quite a challenge to maintain both quality and customer acceptance, while reducing sodium levels in various foods. Consider that for most Americans, the target value set by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is 2,300 mg per day—a significant reduction from the average 3,400 mg most of us currently consume on a daily basis. It’s not just about meeting taste preferences, either—humans have used salt as a preservative, as well as for its functional utility, in food for millennia. Plus, sodium occurs naturally in many foods, such as milk-based products, some beans and even certain fruits and veggies! To illustrate the incredible complexity of meeting the sodium challenge alone never mind in combination with changing standards for fats, calories, whole grains and sugar), let’s use pizza as an example. A slice has four components: crust, sauce, cheese and topping. • In order to increase the whole-grain content of the crust, the process generally requires more sodium, not less. Fortunately, food scientists have turned to salt substitutes that maintain much of the functionality that sodium plays in the production of a bread dough. • Menu planners can opt to favor toppings with a lower-sodium profile, such as veggies over processed lowfat meats. • Moving on to the sauce, the flavors provided by added sodium can be replaced using various herbs and spices, but at the core of any pizza sauce is processed tomatoes, and these tend to be high in sodium, with no obvious answer on the horizon. • The big sodium culprit in pizza is the cheese. You simply can’t make cheese without salt, and reducing sodium levels has a significant impact on the functionality of cheese, such as its “melt-ability,” as well as its shelf-life. To address the cheese dilemma, USDA has been working with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin and the Dairy Research Institute on acceptable (i.e. delicious, safe and effective) solutions for reduced-fat, reduced-sodium cheeses. One approach is to develop new technologies that address the basic science of foods. For example, salt is a crystal. Scientists are exploring how to change the shape of the crystal in an effort to deliver the same taste properties while using less. Another approach is to find alternatives that mimic the many properties of salt without causing the same (or worse) side effects in human consumption. The urgency is so great that stakeholders from government, science and manufacturing/processing are eager to partner together to find solutions. For example, the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) started a “Turbo” (Tech Transfer, University, Research and Business Opportunity) program to provide economic incentives— including technical support, reimbursable grants, market research and other forms of business assistance—toward the commercial development of novel dairy technologies and products. CDR actively seeks companies that use cheese in their end products to work together to explore how to move innovative findings from the laboratory to the production floor. What’s New? While product reformulation may be driven primarily by changing nutrition requirements, new product development in K-12 foodservice is prompted by several factors, including nutrition standards and operational efficiencies, as well as by a need to be considered fresh, current and relevant to a highly diverse customer base. “We’re always evaluating new product development goals based on our customers’ needs. Whether it’s a product we can develop or not. Whether it’s an expressed need or an anticipated need,” says Don Lee Farms’ Goodman, giving voice to the customer-focused commitment of all the company representatives interviewed for this article. Good intentions are one thing. But it can’t be denied that the ease of bringing new products to market varies significantly, depending on the size of the company. At JTM, for example, “Before even starting, new ideas must go before a six-person new product committee and justify the need,” says Hofmeier. This group reviews production requirements and facility selection, among other factors. It’s a big job, considering there were 33 school items that went through this rigorous review in the last year. It’s not just about the literal capabilities of ingredients and manufacturing equipment. With increased consumer demand for products to address food allergies, lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, vegetarian preferences and more, manufacturers must establish careful allergen and other ingredient contamination controls along the entire product development and production spectrum. For example, JTM is working on a new falafel item. It contains beans but no meat; it can’t be run on the same day or same production line as the meat variety. Consider also minimum production volumes that wind up creating scheduling challenges. When Can We Eat? Still, food manufacturers and processors are committed to trying. Success means happy customers—operators and end users—in the exceedingly steady K-12 foodservice market segment. Let’s follow one recently introduced product from a midnight epiphany to SY 2014-15 menu availability. Sean Trygestad, senior manager, category marketing at Schwan’s, recalls waking up in the middle of the night a little over a year ago with an idea: “Let’s make the best whole-grain pizza possible.” In and of itself, that’s not such a startling idea for a pizza company selling to schools, and this firm had been “living and breathing” excellent school pizza for a very long time. But taking it to the next level was the new challenge. First Trygestad brought the idea to the company’s product development team. After kicking the elements around, they sent it to the research kitchen. Several weeks of experimenting with different ingredient mixes led to the development of satisfactory “bench” samples that could be produced in limited quantities. The next step was taking the new formulation to the production line. Could the recipe with-stand the rigors of bulk production? Would it hold up when made by the case load? A concurrent step was an extensive series of focus group and student taste tests in order to gain critical customer validation. Were they right? Was this pizza new and different and something kids would love? After a few short months, the Schwan’s team had their answer—and were ready for small batch production and an initial introduction to operators at SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) in Kansas City last July. From the response at ANC, they knew they had something special in the new product: Big Daddy’s Primo. Still, before the item could roll out fully, Schwan’s needed to scale up for full production, such as ensuring it had a sufficient supply of all ingredients and slotting the new item into the busy plant schedule. Fortunately, the procurement cycle of most school nutrition operation aids vendors in these final steps, since most menus and purchasing commitments have been made for the school year that follows ANC. Thus, a new product presented at ANC 2013 likely won’t hit most menus until SY 2014-15. All new product development roads travel to the same destination, but different companies may take varying paths. Lincoln Yee, founder and CEO of Asian Food Solutions (AFS), says his experience in the new product development process is similar, but different. AFS is a relative newcomer in school foodservice, born of a graduate school project six years ago. Yee’s thesis hypothesis: Could a small startup develop a whole new product line that could compete in an established K-12 market and utilize commodities (i.e. USDA Foods)? “Teriyaki was an obvious item,” Yee says. A market of ever-more sophisticated, adventurous kids established a firm foundation. In addition, “Kids are tending to spicier, bolder flavor profiles,” Yee asserts. This led him to use USDA chicken as a base for testing Thai and curry flavors. The result: ASF’s Thai Sweet Chili Chicken and Bombay Curry Chicken, both of which have enjoyed successful introductions to K-12 operations. Yee thinks he has an advantage as a smaller company that can move faster with fewer hoops. He didn’t have to gain approval through a succession of internal company layers when taking the product from idea to market. But the irony is that success has made the company larger, with more people involved. Still, Yee insists AFS can continue to react to customer demand more quickly than many of those in the food manufacturing vanguard. Partners for Progress The school community is arguably the most collegial of all foodservice segments. It demonstrates a strong sense of genuine partnership between operators and vendors, which is why veterans on both sides of the equation can point to so many successful collaborations and longstanding relationships. We haven’t seen the end of challenging times in this business, however, so school nutrition professionals and industry partners must continue to look forward, anticipating future requirements and balancing these with customer demand. But in working together, sharing ideas and concerns openly, we can expect to continue to see some truly inspired results born of the unique alchemy of science, art—and a commitment to healthy kids. Barry Sackin is a school nutrition consultant based in Murietta, Calif., a former staff vice president of government affairs for SNA and a former director of foodservice in Anaheim, Calif. Photography by Jovanmandic/Jiunlimited.com. BONUS WEB CONTENT Want to learn more about the timeline challenges of making a new product available to the school market and read an additional example of a manufacturer’s steps from concept to plate? Be sure to check School Nutrition’s online-exclusive additions at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. SNAPSHOT • Modifying formulations of popular products can be a risky, expensive—but necessary—business, as K-12 nutrition requirements evolve. • Future sodium targets is just one sobering example of the complex challenge faced by food manufacturers. • Companies may have slight variations in their approach to the process of new product development. NOT THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN For many food manufacturers and processors, schools are only one part of the business—perhaps major, perhaps minor—and this is another factor in the allocation of resources for new product development. Fortunately, the current trend for nutritious alternatives crosses all foodservice and retail market segments. Asian Food Solutions, for example, has seen success taking several of its school products to non-school segments that similarly embrace the leading edge toward healthier foods. The team at Jennie-O Turkey Store also sees commonalities between school requirements and commercial demands. “You can be quicker and more cost effective in K-12 because the target audience is known, and the nutrition targets are clear. Commercial products may require more customer testing,” says Jennie-O’s Renee Cool, product manager, foodservice. She cites the bottom line: “Our job is to make it easy to eat well. Because turkey is such a healthy base, and the company has a clear commitment to healthy products…we can align many of our products in both environments.”
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.