Disruption

My first 10 years in the food industry were spent with two major companies – General Foods and Standard Brands. Eventually these two giants were merged with Kraft foods. Later on Kraft and Heinz got together and in 2017 this mega-company almost took over Unilever. If this had happened about 30 years of my career in the industry would have ended up in one company. Mind boggling.

This past week Kraft-Heinz took a beating on the stock market as they wrote down the value of some of their iconic brands like Kraft cheese and Oscar Mayer.

The name of the game in this whole writedown thingy is good old fashioned Disruption. What was in the past, will not be in the future – so there.

Disruption happens with employees as well as companies. Look what’s happening in General Motors Oshawa and Lordstown right now. And I must admit that it happened in my own line of work.

50 years ago when I started working in the food industry, all the majors had some sort of product development lab in Canada, as well as a bunch of factories. As a food scientist, it was my job to use my technical knowledge to develop “convenience foods” to make it easier for the homemaker. Whether it was main dish (Shake ‘n Bake), side dish (Noodles and Sauce), or dessert (Whip ‘n Chill) – we were there.

As time went on though these products became less and less relevant in the marketplace. I suppose there were a number of reasons:

  • Convenience foods at home were taken over by fast food away from home. Less meal prep at home means less “convenience” was needed.
  • There was a marketing trend to slag the convenience foods because of “food additives” “preservatives” “artificial whatever.” There has never been any proof that these so-called “chemicals” were bad for you. But it is what it is.
  • Many of the brand name convenience foods were replaced by generic knockoffs sold by supermarket chains – products that were just as good as the mainstream brands.
  • If one were to criticize the convenience foods as a group they probably introduced too much sugar and sodium into the diet. But again this was because of cost/profit considerations, and hey – we had to make money, right?

Even a fine product like Becel – which has a good health story – has become a victim of marketing doublespeak. Now they emphasize its “plant based oils” rather than the fact it’s low in saturates and high in polyunsaturates. Unilever has even sold the brand as part of its efforts to evade the Kraft- Heinz embrace.

The other disruptive force – in the Canadian food industry at least – has been creeping consolidation under the Kraft-Heinz umbrella. This particular mega-company has always aimed to cut costs and consolidate everything in the US. There has been a never-ending progression of food plant closures all over Quebec and Ontario that can be attributed to Kraft. And Kraft never did any serious product development in Canada – even in the 1970s.

So these days food prep at home seems to be dominated by the need to have “fresh and natural” ingredients. The fact that some of this stuff is grown overseas in dodgy conditions is immaterial I guess. Look at the Listeria and E. Coli outbreaks with fancy romaine lettuce.

Maybe we used preservatives back in the day – and they were actually fairly natural ingredients that you find in say, cranberries – but at least we didn’t make anyone sick.

I suppose disruption is a normal phenomenon – just ask Blockbuster Video or Nokia – but at the same time it doesn’t always make things better. That’s my take on it anyway.

You may like