Pierce Hollingsworth

The Hot Topic sessions coming up during this month’s “Inspiration for the Future” IFT Annual Meeting offer some sizzling insights into the issues that will shape the future of this industry—public health, science, and strategic planning. Each one features a panel of diverse professionals with compelling and unique perspectives, moderated by seasoned industry insiders. It’s a volatile and gripping formula for sizing up some of the most controversial issues facing food companies today.

The “Biotechnology: Field of Dreams?” Hot Topic session coincides with current moves by the Clinton administration to improve public confidence in biotechnology. A plan proposed proposed in May would give the government greater control over genetically modified foods. The proposal includes a requirement that biotech companies notify the Food and Drug Administration four months before marketing a new genetically modified food and provide research results that address food safety. This currently is a voluntary process. FDA indicated that it would expand food labeling provisions to allow food packaging to state that contents are free of gene-altered ingredients, if the company could prove that the food was, indeed, free of genetically modified organisms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also would have powers to validate new scientific tests aimed at detecting the presence of gene-altered ingredients.

The proposal covers gene-altered plants, such as pest-resistant corn and soybeans, and animals, including fish that grow faster and have wider range. Agencies involved in the sweeping proposal include environmental, food safety, agricultural, and trade groups.

Currently, genetically altered plants account for half of the U.S. soybean and cotton production and one-third of corn. In addition, smaller amounts of genetically altered canola, potatoes, and squash are produced.

Moderators Frank Flora (USDA) and Susan Harlander (The Pillsbury Co.) will head a panel that includes government policy makers, a representative of the European Commission Delegation, a state farm bureau president, a biotechnology executive, and a representative of a major food company.

While the use of modern biotechnology in agriculture has the potential for improving food production, nutrition, and the environment, it has met with stiff opposition from groups ranging from the European Union to so-called consumer advocates. In recent years, concerns for the potential environmental and human health effects of genetically modified crops have captured headlines on both sides of the globe. Opposition to the use of genetically modified products has been most intense in the European countries. Annual revenue losses due to closed or restricted European markets are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the U.S., both Frito-Lay and McDonald’s have recently caved in to critics by saying that they would stop using some bioengineered ingredients.

The panel will assess current biotechnology science in light of these political issues and the emotion surrounding such issues as genetic engineering and its role in developing cheaper, more effective drugs, disease-resistant crops, higher yielding food plants, and foods with “designed” nutritional properties.

These issues dovetail with the session “Trend Makers: What Makes them Tick?” Moderators Felix Germino (F. Germino & Associates) and John Hanlin (The Pillsbury Co.) lead a panel discussion examining how marketing and research and development groups try to determine future product trends and consumer response. Specific topics include how to identify and track trends, create market demand, learn from failures, create an environment that nurtures creativity, and make a small business successful.

One tool emerging as a powerful means to track trends and deepen customer relationships is the Internet. Last month, Kellogg Co. launched what it claims is “the industry’s first Internet-based loyalty program,” via an online news announcement just prior to the opening of the Food Marketing Institute’s Supermarket Convention.

“The explosive expansion of the Internet and e-commerce provides a significant opportunity for growing both our cereal and convenience food businesses,” said John D. Cook, executive vice president at Kellogg Co. and president of Kellogg North America. The company’s EETandERN.com [eat and earn] program recognizes and rewards customers for their commitment to Kellogg brand products. Points gained are redeemed for toys, sporting goods, and school supplies. Companies partnering with Kellogg are fogdog.com, Schoolpop.com, and toysmart.com.

Panelist Robert McMath, president of the New Products Showcase and Learning Center, Inc., points out that “Truly innovative products constitute just over 5% of new consumer product wannabes.” Eighty percent of new products fail to make sales targets—a tough environment that demands hard-nosed approaches.

Many of these new products are aimed at promoting good health, the issue at the heart of the session, “Obesity: The Rhythm Method of Girth Control,” moderated by Julie Jones (College of St. Catherine) and Guy Johnson (Kellogg Co.). Despite the humorous title, obesity is at the crux of many acute public health issues such as heart disease; stroke; gallbladder disease; osteoarthritis; sleep apnea and respiratory problems; and endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Higher body weights are also associated with increases in all-cause mortality.

The panel will address causes, cures, and opportunities—ranging from the multiple-warhead perspective of fitness gurus who blame lack of exercise as a cause; consumer advocates and obesity researchers who stress underlying metabolic problems; body size acceptance proponents; public policy advocates who call for a “sin tax” on fattening, low-nutritional value food; to an attorney addressing the legal and regulatory aspects of obesity.

Collectively, these sessions lay out a blueprint for product development priorities, ranging from getting the fat out to the role of food companies in public health education.

Contributing Editor