Green grows

Environmental concerns will exert a bigger force in food processing and packaging as players in the supply chain strive to become more energy-efficient and eco-friendly.

Labeling food products, equipment and serving ware as “green” not only gives producers and manufacturers a competitive edge in the foodservice market, it can help their bottom line.

The new products that reflect this trend are not necessarily organic and are described by several terms besides green: sustainable, all-natural, fair trade, clean and antibiotic-, hormone- and pesticide-free are just some of the labels or specs you’ll see.

A chicken product that is both green and value-added has been hard to come by. Just this month, FreeBird Chicken, antibiotic-free, all-natural poultry that is dedicated to sustainable family farming, has debuted eight new items for foodservice. Included in the lineup are breaded chicken breast nuggets, three varieties of chicken wings, dinosaur-shaped chicken bites, breaded chicken breast patties and two types of chicken breast strips—breaded and grilled. All are fully cooked and frozen, eliminating what the company claims is the operator’s dilemma of having to choose between convenience and “clean.”

Grass-fed beef is another socially conscious protein that is growing in production but difficult to find. Although more U.S. ranchers are raising cattle on grass, there are currently no strict regulations governing the use of the label in this country. Cattle can start off on grass and be finished in a feedlot and still be called “grass-fed.” 

A group of restaurateurs founded Estancia Beef—a wholesale business that imports grass-fed beef from Uruguay where it’s raised sustainably. Products from Estancia Beef are sourced from animals that graze on grass throughout their lives; avoiding the feedlot means no fossil fuels are needed to raise the cattle and no antibiotics or hormones used to fatten them up. Currently, tenderloin, ribeye, flank and striploin steaks are available. The company is expanding its sourcing to include U.S. ranchers who are committed to 100 percent grass-fed cattle.

Starbucks continues to be a frontrunner in the green movement. Recently launched is the brand’s Certified and Conservation Coffee Program, which is marketing Café Estima Blend for foodservice operators. Included in this all-purpose blend of Fair Trade certified coffees are Latin American and East African coffees that vary in flavor and intensity. The goal of this program is to purchase only those coffee beans that are grown in a way that protects the environment and promotes economic stability for the farmers.

Over in Wisconsin, farmers have banded together to produce an eco-friendly potato, known as the Wisconsin Healthy Grown potato. The product, which uses integrated pest management technology (IPM), is certified by Protected Harvest, a nonprofit that identifies farmers who follow stringent environmental growing standards.

Over 7 million pounds of Healthy Grown fresh potatoes were produced last year—all branded with a distinctive eco-label—and Healthy Grown processed potatoes are on the drawing board. The program plans to expand to include snap beans, sweet corn, apples, tomatoes and sweet potatoes—all of which will be called “green” even though they’re not necessarily organic.

On the canned fruit and vegetable side, Truitt Bros. has earned certification from Food Alliance, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that supports sustainable, socially responsible practices. Truitt is reintroducing two of its signature products—Blue Lake green beans and juice-packed Bartlett pears—with a new label that shares the company’s story of commitment to protect the environment.

Companies that sell disposables are jumping on the green bandwagon, too. EATware is a new line of environmentally friendly takeout boxes, bowls, plates and trays made of an all-natural material that is 100 percent bio-degradable and recyclable. A non-chemical additive in the products holds the pulp tableware together with crystallization technology, resulting in a sturdy, water- and oil-resistant disposable. EATware plans to introduce several new SKUs in 2007, including a compartmentalized 10-inch plate and smaller trays.

Before You Buy

Innovation is the key to entrepreneurship,” says Victor Gielesse, associate VP for industry solutions at the Culinary Institute of America. As a liaison between manufacturers and operators, he collaborates on culinary product development that meets the needs of both. But how innovative should restaurateurs get? Before you sign on a new product or line, Gielesse advises “stay true to your concept.”

He follows up with these suggestions:

  • Determine what defines your market. A restaurant in Dallas has different needs than one in Oklahoma City or Chicago.
  • Understand your customers’ expectations.
  • How cutting edge do they want to be and how much are they willing to pay for it?
  • Evaluate the ease of implementation. How will a new product fit into your distribution channels and menu? Will it require staff training or add convenience?
  • Consider the cost. How will the product impact both food and labor costs?

Q&A with Danny Bruns

Corporate Chef

Kerry Ingredients

Waukesha, Wisconsin

Q. What are food manufacturers looking at as they develop new products?
From my vantage point [a supplier of ingredients and technologies to food companies], there are two big trends driving product development today. The first is health and wellness; manufacturers want to incorporate a healthy benefit into food products and operators want to buy health-promoting items.

The second is authenticity of ethnic products. It’s not enough anymore to look at a single flavor or ingredient and say, “This is Thai or that is Indian.” You have to consider where the raw materials come from, what makes these dishes fragrant, the cooking technique used and how the food is eaten. For example, if we are helping a customer create a Brazilian stew, we go back to the source to get the authentic spices and ingredients and then develop something in the lab that speaks to that specific region of the world.

Q. Is it difficult to source these ingredients?
As we continue to appreciate the minute differences in spices, processors will be buying more authentic seasonings, like Mexican oregano, Spanish thyme and crunchy cinnamon from the Philippines. If demand keeps up, these countries will eventually have to plant more crops and get them into the supply chain.

Q. What technologies are pushing product development?
Freeze-drying is always out front. Powders that provide the nutrition and flavor of fresh ingredients that may be hard to source, such as guanabana, pomegranate, mangosteen and acai, are gaining momentum. Manufacturers can incorporate the powders into marinades and topical seasonings and get the health benefits of an energy drink. We’re currently using patented equipment to create a microwaveable crumb that imparts a crispier coating on chicken, meats and vegetable proteins. And advances in crystal technology are allowing processors to layer two or more flavors in products, such as citrus and heat, just like fine chefs do.

Q. What is the biggest area of growth?
The natural trend is on the tip of the rocket and ready to take off. Kerry’s natural seasonings division is converting a wide range of products, including breadings, snacks and seasonings, to a more natural formulation. This is very much in demand now. Manufacturers want clean label declarations, so they’re trying to revise old products to remove artificial ingredients. And midscale restaurants, especially, are competing to offer the freshest, most natural menu.

Q. Tell us about some of the projects you are currently working on.
Texture is a big R&D area for us. We’re working with higher-fiber flours and starch technology to improve that coating crumb I mentioned above. The seasonings group is looking for elements that reduce sodium in a product but still deliver big taste. And our dairy group is taking the water out of ingredients and creating spray-dried substitutes that are lower in cost but just as full-flavored.

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