Making these deals pay dividends, however, requires a shift in the talent profile of ingredient companies from product specialists working alone on a single flavor to technicians working with multiple ingredients in collaboration with others in the food production chain. Under the traditional model, for instance, a product specialist was at the top of the, well, food chain, possessing deep expertise in understanding how, for instance, a particular fat can be used as an emulsifier to stabilize processed foods. In the new system, however, there is a greater need for technicians who can marshal a broad range of ingredients to create a flavorful product at scale and in-line with rapidly evolving consumer tastes.
That change has dramatically altered how and where food ingredient companies source talent. Instead of recruiting scientists from the chemical industry, they are now going to culinary schools and restaurants to hire line cooks and chefs. “There’s been a trend toward chefs who can lead an army of ingredient specialists to create a dish at industrial scale,” says Boeren, “so that when the dish is finished, you can make money on it.”
Not unlike pretty much every other industry, the COVID-19 outbreak has severely impacted the food ingredient supply chain, underscoring how the large number of people who handle food can create all kinds of opportunities for contamination of either the food or the people processing it. But the pandemic’s impact is compounded by the fact that food ingredient companies were already in the midst of a massive shift in its supply chain when it hit. Changing consumer tastes dictated a supply chain change away from animal- based products and artificial flavors and sweeteners, and toward plant-based eating and natural extracts. Frederika Tielenius Kruythoff, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Chemical and Agriculture practice in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, says the rapid growth of the plant protein category means sourcing and procuring peas, lentils, chickpeas, and other green ingredients on a much bigger scale than ever before.
“This channel wasn’t that big or important just five years ago,” says Kruythoff. “Now it’s huge.” And the bigger it gets, the more challenges it poses. Where should these proteins grow? How close to production facilities can they be sourced? Can they be procured at the scale needed? Should they be organic? How can they be brought together and utilized in the production process?
Food ingredient companies were well on their way to figuring out the answers to those questions—including piloting a blockchain-enabled platform to better manage, ship, and trace food trading—when the coronavirus outbreak totally obscured any visibility they had into this new supply chain. For the time being, similar to every other industry, food ingredient companies are working in shifts, with some people in laboratories and others at home. As a result, manufacturing has been limited to focusing on certain products either because they are in demand or easier to produce. For example, instead of producing confectioneries, they prefer to produce snacks, soups, and broths to be able to have fewer people working in the factory. “The safety and health of our employees while ensuring continued production and delivery of essential products to our customers have been our key priorities during this time,” says DuPont’s Heinzel. “Our employees have been extremely flexible with the peaks we’ve seen in demand while adjusting our processes to keep everyone safe and our plants running.”
And that mindset, experts say, is likely to remain long after the pandemic is gone.