First Fresh Foods chicken sausage ingredients
First Fresh Foods' products are targeted at millennials who are conscientious of what's in their food.

GAINESVILLE, GA. — A 28-year veteran of the packaged foods industry, William Jennings has witnessed an evolution in the way people eat and the subsequent challenges for manufacturers and suppliers.

William Jennings, First Fresh Foods
William Jennings, c.e.o. of First Fresh Foods

“Some players in the industry are reacting, and some players in the industry are trying to lead the way,” said Mr. Jennings, chief executive officer of First Fresh Foods L.L.C. “But I think at the end of the day, the bottom line is this: The labels are getting cleaner. And that is good for all of us.”

Mr. Jennings’ career includes roles in poultry processing, manufacturing, quality assurance, research and development, sales and general management, with experience at companies such as Mission Foods, ConAgra Foods, Inc. and Seaboard Farms. This past January, he became c.e.o. of First Fresh Foods, a Gainesville-based producer of chicken sausage and chicken products.

“We started three years ago with an idea of bringing breast meat chicken sausage to the United States,” Mr. Jennings told Food Business News. “We’ve developed a proprietary process that allows us to use breast meat, which is minimally processed and allows it to have a bite just like pork…

“We have grown quickly. In part, it has more to do with the fact that our product is very clean, made with all natural ingredients and of course being breast meat, it’s a very desired cut of meat in United States and not only provides a healthy alternative to pork but is also a great meal replacement for chicken itself.”

First Fresh Foods chicken meatballs
First Fresh Foods products are made with locally raised, cage-free chickens with no added hormones, MSG, preservatives, fillers or nitrates.

First Fresh Foods products are made with locally raised, cage-free chickens with no added hormones, MSG, preservatives, fillers or nitrates. Varieties include breakfast sausages, Italian sausages, meatballs and croquettes.

“We know with our research — and our product is targeted heavily at millennials — the millennials are the most well-informed generation when it comes to label reading and identifying what’s in the product,” Mr. Jennings said. “Any time you can’t pronounce a word you know it’s most likely not a natural product. They don’t like that, and they’re very vocal.”

While the clean label trend may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, Mr. Jennings suggested the movement began a couple decades ago. In an interview with Food Business News, he discussed his perspective of the trend, as well as the challenges and implications for the industry.

Food Business News: From your perspective, how has the clean label trend unfolded?

William Jennings: Early in the ‘90s when the consumer started becoming more aware and the government began taking steps to provide better information on the nutritional panels, that was a very good start. It was a needed start for people to realize what they were getting in their food. I think the education of the consumer and the consumer’s desire to see what was on the label was probably the genesis of this. And it has really grown with the advent of nutritional classes that students take in school.

First Fresh Foods chicken sausage
First Fresh Foods offers Italian and breakfast sausages.

What challenges do manufacturers face as a result of the demand for clean label?

Mr. Jennings: The greatest challenge is the supply challenge. Usually the manufacturers are on the front lines of the battle with the marketplace, but we are reliant on suppliers as well. We’re reliant on tray suppliers, film suppliers, ingredient suppliers. If those suppliers aren’t being communicated directly to, they are lagging behind. The greatest challenge we have is the lag behind the suppliers’ side so we can react to where the market is.

It’s not just from an ingredient standpoint; one of things we as manufacturers have to start doing as well is being more conscious of the environment. Because we’re using raw meat we use a lot of wax impregnated corrugate. You can’t recycle wax impregnated corrugate … but we’re actually working with a supplier who developed a green alternative that will preserve the corrugate while it’s wet but can be recycled.

Working with your suppliers is the most critical thing in identifying what’s coming down the pike and how do you shorten the to-market time frame by working with the supplier in question so you and that supplier can come up with an alternative or response to the market need.

First Fresh Foods habanero chicken sausages
Some products feature specialty cheeses such as habanero or havarti.

How does sustainable packaging play into the clean label trend?

Mr. Jennings: Even when I worked at ConAgra in 1996, we were working on sustainability, and it has become the norm in the industry. We realize that our consumer is becoming more and more educated, and sustainability is becoming more and more the norm. Let’s not fool ourselves either. One of the reasons I want to use a sustainable corrugate is so I can recycle it so I can get money for that. The alternative is I’m paying to have it hauled away to the dump, so there is a financial motivation to us. That’s the nice thing about sustainability. It works both ways. The consumer wants it, and manufacturer needs it to remain competitive. If I’m recycling my corrugate and not paying to haul it away my costs are going to be better so I can deliver a better price to market.

I think we have challenges up the road. One of the challenges we’ve had is, I’ve always been interested in biodegradable film. They’ve been working with biodegradable film made out of vegetable oil. Unfortunately it has a short shelf life. Wrapping food products, unless that product is going to be eaten immediately, it doesn’t work because sometimes the shelf life of the film is less than the shelf life of the food you’re wrapping it in. I think what’s really neat is that’s the next vanguard of sustainability is to be able to take out the PVC plastics we utilize all over the industry to wrap products and to utilize a vegetable oil version.

In terms of formulation challenges, how do you accommodate special diets while remaining clean label?

Mr. Jennings: My wife happens to have been diagnosed with celiac disease, and when I joined the company, not all of our sausages were gluten-free. Our croquettes, which are a breaded chicken item, were not gluten-free. I took some samples home, and my kids loved the product, but my wife couldn’t eat it…

First Fresh Foods chicken croquettes
First Fresh Foods is working with an allergen specialist to eliminate eggs from its croquettes.

I joined this company exactly one year ago, and I started working on the gluten-free project. We ran a lot of tests on a variety of different breaders, and we couldn’t come up with one item. We had to mix and pick and mix. It is very challenging, but … ingredient suppliers are now providing alternatives.

We’re currently working with an allergen specialist because in our croquettes, we try to stay away from eggs because it’s an allergen. We’re working with an allergen specialist that has a couple ideas of different things we can use, such as garbanzo beans, to provide the protein needed to bind, which is what we use the eggs for. I think it’s in the best interest of all the manufacturers and suppliers of ingredients and foods from a financial standpoint to try to include more consumers…

This egg is going to be a big challenge for us … but that’s the direction we want to go. It is a challenge, but in the long run it’s a better alternative.

First Fresh Foods chicken sausage links
First Fresh Foods' maple chicken sausage links are made with Vermont maple syrup.

Why was it so important to your company to eliminate allergens from your products?

Mr. Jennings: In a processing plant like ours when you have allergens, you must segregate the allergens separate from everything. That means you have to have extra storage areas just for that.

And then when you process a product with an allergen in it, you have to go through an entire process of cleaning. So, yes, there are a lot of challenges up front to identify and get the formula just right, but there are payoffs on the backside because you don’t have to store as many ingredients, and you don’t have to invest in all the cleaning. You have to do a full washdown with the sanitation to render the allergens inert, whereas when you don’t have allergens in the formula you can just wash down with water, and it’s a simpler and less costly alternative.

There comes a time where there may be a point when you can’t take it out, but in our case we’re going to try everything we can to take those things that we can take out so we can include more consumers.

First Fresh Foods chicken bratwurst
First Fresh Foods' chicken breast meat, which is minimally processed, allows it to have a bite just like pork.

What are your thoughts on how major food companies are responding to the clean label trend?

Mr. Jennings: I think unfortunately in many cases, the larger you are, you’re catching up because a lot of these decisions to do what they were doing were for cost reasons, and to go back now in a time where natural ingredients cost more, they’re having to make these changes.

In the fast-food segment, I love what McDonald’s is doing; I think it’s overdue. But look at their numbers. They’re reacting because others have reacted before them and now they’re having to react because their sales are down. I think there’s a difference. If you’re leading the way and making changes and you’re on the cutting edge of delivering a clean label, that’s one thing. I think the consumer sees that and understands that.