Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — While food and beverage ingredients and ingredient systems remain the focal point of the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo, a new type of exhibitor is making inroads at the show. These businesses offer solutions to harness “big data” and will spur significant changes in food and beverage companies. It is a transition that will further accelerate the product development process and bring greater clarity to the inefficiencies embedded in many supply chains.

Big data is a vague phrase that has many meanings. Under this umbrella, businesses exhibiting and presenting at IFT19 offered services that included basic data integration and analysis, the use of artificial intelligence (A.I.) to mine social media for consumer insights and opportunities and using A.I. to predict consumer preferences of food and beverage products.

Despite this impressive presence at IFT19, a panel discussion at this year’s event held in New Orleans June 2-5 highlighted how the use of big data throughout the industry is still in its infancy.

“What we have seen in the past five years is some companies hired a big data person, and they started analyzing their own data,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of insights and innovation for Innova Market Insights, during a June 3 panel discussion about the future of the food industry. “What I have seen most successfully done in terms of big data or analytics is around marketing mix, and that is more on the marketing side.”

Sanjeev Krishnan, managing director and chief information officer of Seed 2 Growth Ventures, a venture capital fund solely focused on food and agriculture, added, “I see two evolutions to the sector — to move from analog to digital and digital to computation. We’re still far away from computation.

“But if you could design your business and workflow to be slightly more digitized to capture those data lakes that will enable computation, there you can create some real differentiation for yourself in the marketplace not only in how you formulate a product but also in distribution.”

A challenge for those embracing big data is outlining specific goals, Ms. Williams said.

“The problem with A.I. is what is your question?” she said. “I think we have to understand our problem statement for a lot of these things.”

That is not to imply food companies are not embracing the use of data analytics. During the keynote presentation at Sosland Publishing’s annual Purchasing Seminar, Sean Connolly, president and chief executive officer of Conagra Brands, discussed how big data is helping the company unlock consumer insights for new product development.

McCormick and Co., in conjunction with IBM, will be launching One this year, an A.I.-enabled platform that will help product developers create new flavors more quickly by using A.I. to predict new flavor combinations from millions of data points across sensory science, consumer preference and flavor palettes.

Yet the full power of big data will not be realized until information is shared and analyzed throughout the supply chain, from the producer through to the consumer. It may be years in the future before this vision becomes reality, but when realized big data will revolutionize many aspects of the industry.