Dave Bender, Vice President of R&D for Griffith Laboratories Canada

Text by Theresa Rogers

22-24_Spotlight_DaveBenderA fluctuating Canadian dollar, increasing competition, clean label requirements, demographic shifts and more, there is no shortage of challenges for Canadian ingredient system suppliers these days. We spoke with Dave Bender, Vice President of R&D for Griffith Laboratories Canada, on how his company is leveraging teamwork, superior food science, and deeper insights to effectively respond to the ever-changing needs of the Canadian family.

What’s the competitive environment like for food ingredient manufacturers right now?The environment is extremely competitive. It has become a global marketplace where we have local, North American and worldwide competitors. When we go to market it’s with a full solutions approach, and that’s how we believe we can differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. When we do work on projects it is a multi-functional team including our chefs, our sensory scientists, and they will work hand-in-hand with our product developers and our innovation team to make sure we address the project need that our customers have.

Is it accurate to say there are a lot of competing challenges these days: clean labels, sourcing ingredients, changing demographics, etc.?
It certainly would be accurate. All of these challenges, including regulatory compliance, are key factors in our work. Our customers have specific requirements that are very unique and then beyond that, the products we develop have to taste great and deliver to all expectations. To the earlier point about the competitive environment, solutions also have to be cost-effective.

Has this been a gradual change?
In many regards, it has been gradual. The Canadian ingredient business has always been competitive but you could say everything has sped up over the last five years: the changing dollar, consolidation of the overall food industry, closing of food manufacturers across Canada; all of these have led to a more competitive environment. As a result, everyone has to be on their toes and I think the adjustment has been more dramatic the last five years with what we all need to do to ensure our business is healthy, sustainable and growing.

Is a high Canadian dollar or low Canadian dollar better for the food ingredient business?
The rate of change in the dollar can be challenging for sure. It really depends on your product mix and what you’re selling. It can be good for exports but many ingredients are purchased in U.S. dollars and therefore input costs are driven up.

How do you identify food and flavour trends?
We have various ways. We spend a lot of time with our marketing team understanding what the key consumer trends are; whether it’s specific flavours, types of cuisine, or a health and nutrition trend. We watch locally and globally all the retail and foodservice new product introductions. Our marketing team focuses on where the food consumer is going in the future. We then work to understand what people are looking for in regards to a flavour system, seasoning or textural attribute and then we execute so that we can deliver on what consumers will be looking for.

Explain your approach in terms of the go-to library versus new toolbox.
It’s about customization. A company like ours has developed literally thousands of products which have been put into a product library over the years. In the past, that was a way of going to market where if a customer was simply looking for a chili seasoning, we would give them one of five in the library. Over the last 10 years but certainly increasingly, everyone wants to customize their offerings. They want their own spin on it whether it’s asking for lower salt, a higher heat level, a twist on the chili seasoning or they’re looking for a cleaner label for their customer. It almost seems that every opportunity that comes to us is now, ‘Do you have this type of product, but now let’s customize it,’ and that’s what we do extremely well.

How long does a trend typically last?
Great question. Depending on the trend, it can last six months to decades. We definitely try to take a look to see if it’s a trend or a fad and at times it’s as much our guess as anyone in the industry. We’ll look at the trend and see where we can play and see if we can expand and do our part to increase the life of that trend. A trend can become mainstream. It’s our goal when we launch products to make them taste great, deliver on all sensory attributes and meet all the customer requirements so that trend does eventually turn into mainstream. Part of our role is to make sure, as much as we can, that the trend has staying power.

22-24_Spotlight_DaveBender2What is going to be hot for the upcoming BBQ season?
From a flavour perspective, some of the platforms we see hitting the BBQ are the evolution of hot and spicy, tangy and sour, and sweet and salty flavour profiles. And especially for summer, fruity and floral. Pomegranate, mango, citrus-lime, and pear flavour systems may be visiting a BBQ near you soon.

There is a lot of market research available to categorize customers and slice and dice. Does that make your job both easier and more difficult?
Yes, it can make it easier and more difficult, and you have different types of retailers and food service channels catering to more niche markets. There’s also regionalization. Now, consumers are looking for regional cuisine whether it’s the west coast, Quebec, Ontario, or the east coast, so you have to have an understanding of what it means to each marketplace and why it might work.

It must be interesting to see how things do or don’t come together and the expertise involved in mixing these foods, technologies and flavours.
You’re absolutely right and it’s to the point of this article. Consumers are asking for new and innovative. How they’re cooking, whether it’s with smokers, on the BBQ, indoor grills, a wood-fired oven for a pizza place; each one of those characteristics can affect how we develop the products. For example, you may want a product to withstand a certain temperature and if it’s on the BBQ grill you’re concerned about flame-up versus an oven recon. It is all of those aspects that we have to take into consideration when we’re developing the product.

We’ve seen recent trends with ingredient concerns: probiotics, gluten, salt, sugar. We know the government is introducing new labeling requirements. What are people looking at removing from food next?
The movement toward cleaner labels, and that means so many different things to so many customers, is having an effect. I hope the key is trying to be as consumer-friendly as possible by providing the correct information. Sometimes that can be a challenge because consumers don’t always know the information they are looking for or the importance of certain attributes of the nutritional label they should be looking at… We need calories, we need some fat, and we need some carbs, so for us it’s about finding that balance. Moderation is so important and finding the right balance is what’s critical.

Is it easier to remove something or add something?
Both can be challenging. Generally, it’s much easier to develop from scratch when we know what a customer is looking for. Adding or subtracting can be equally challenging but the addition or removal of one extra ingredient, especially on the flavour side, can throw that balance right off.

What’s in the future?
Just looking at the positive side, some of these challenges that we discussed can sound overburdening but that is what makes the product development business so exciting. They are challenges but most of them can be overcome. We learn from each and every project and as a result we’re making a lot of advancements in the food industry. These challenges push us to innovate and move in a positive direction and meet the ever-changing consumer needs. The food industry is able to rise to these challenges.

One other aspect is that for an ingredient supplier like us, we rely on our suppliers, industry groups and academia to help solve some of these challenges. I think if there’s a movement in the industry going forward, it will be about collaboration and all of us working together.

Collaboration while maintaining trade secrets!
Absolutely. We are up against certain dynamics, especially for food manufacturing in Canada where it might be time where we have to do even more collaboration to ensure we continue to be successful in the global market and that will include the educational and industry partners that are part of the food processing industry.


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