Incremental innovation plays no ‘second fiddle’ to disruptive efforts

by Keith Nunes
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It is heartening to see such companies as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestle, Starbucks, BASF and Unilever listed among the top 50 most innovative companies of 2014 as compiled by the Boston Consulting Group. The inclusion of those companies alongside such innovation luminaries as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Siemens underscores the role innovation is playing in driving the food and beverage industry forward.

This is the ninth year the Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm, has published its list of leading innovators. To compile the list, the group surveys 1,500 “global senior innovation executives” to understand which companies may be considered top innovators and what trends are driving those companies. This year, all of the top 5 spots, 7 of the top 10 and 21 of the top 50 are occupied by technology and telecommunications companies. Consumer industries, which include food and beverage businesses, captured 10 of the top 50 spots, representing the second largest share by industry.

For companies such as Apple and Google, recognition for innovation often focuses on breakthrough ideas, whether it is related to the development of potentially disruptive technologies as Apple’s iWatch or Google Glass. In the food and beverage category innovation tends to be more incremental, but is still deserving of recognition.

Publication this month of the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Health and Wellness survey highlights the role innovation is playing throughout the food and beverage supply chain. More than 30,000 healthier product choices have been made available to consumers between 2012 and 2013, according to the survey. The new choices represent an additional 10,000 choices within the last four years alone.

The survey shows that collectively food and beverage companies have reduced the incidence of trans fatty acids in 11,000 product choices; reduced saturated fat in more than 8,000 products; reduced sugar and carbohydrates in 5,500 items; reduced the calorie content in more than 5,500 product choices; and reduced sodium in more than 6,500 products.

“Consumers want to eat better and they want to do so in a way that fits their lifestyles,” said Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the association. “The 2014 G.M.A. Health and Wellness Survey demonstrates that the industry has responded to this need in a significant way. America’s food and beverage companies have made available to consumers thousands of new and reformulated product choices that are less in calories, fats, sugar and sodium to help them build healthy diets for themselves and their families.”

The reformulation initiatives undertaken by food and beverage companies are representative of the industry’s ability to adapt and innovate. It also highlights the level of innovation being made within the ingredient supplier channel as well.

But it must also be recognized that such innovation efforts are taking place further up the supply chain. Sanjaya Rajaram was awarded the World Food Prize on Oct. 16 in Des Moines for his work as a wheat breeder and developing 480 varieties of the grain to survive in a variety of conditions.

Dr. Rajaram’s research is credited with leading to an increase in world wheat production by more than 200 million tons. His crossing of winter and spring wheat varieties, which were distinct gene pools that had been isolated from one another for hundreds of years, led to his development of plants that have higher yields and dependability under a wide range of environments around the world. He also developed wheat varieties resistant to the rust disease that can wipe out entire fields, thus protecting the world’s food supply.

Too often the food and beverage category is portrayed as a staid business populated by executives focused on maintaining market share. It is clear such a portrayal is ignorant. While there may be fewer examples of disruptive innovation in the food category, its incremental progress throughout the supply chain is fully worthy of notice.

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