Is food packaging a blight on our environment, or might it help to save it? Why does the food industry spend less than any other on developing new products? And who really has the power to make change happen on our supermarket shelves? Professor Paul Trott has the answers. After all, as academics around the world will tell you, he wrote the book.
Helping industry to embrace the new
Food packaging. It’s a terrible thing, isn’t it? Often impossible to recycle, it clogs up landfill, injures wildlife, washes into our seas and creates giant, floating islands of rubbish. Down with packaging!
Food waste. It’s an awful thing, isn’t it? Think of the carbon emissions caused by moving all that food from farm to fork, only for it to end up in the bin. Down with food waste!
"People need to be a bit careful when they’re always arguing for less packaging," says Professor Paul Trott. "A PhD student of ours produced pretty dramatic evidence that packaging is a powerful reducer of food waste."
Wait a minute – what?
"It’s known as the food waste trade off in packaging," Paul explains. "People have known this trade off exists for years. What we’ve done is put forward the evidence, by looking at the extent to which firms can reduce their food waste by increasing use of packaging."
Yes, you read that right – reduce waste by using more packaging. The key, as this myth busting piece of research shows, is to use the right packaging in the right ways.
Paul is Professor of Innovation Management and Head of the Strategy, Enterprise and Innovation Subject Group at the University of Portsmouth. He, his colleagues and PhD students explore how firms develop new products and services.
Paul and members of his team including Dr Chris Simms - a former PhD student of Paul’s, and now a Reader in Innovation Management and New Product Development - regularly use their knowledge, discoveries and insights to help companies innovate more effectively.
Paul explains the spirit in which they work:
"Some researchers prefer to sit in their offices and immerse themselves in data and analysis. I prefer to go out and see products being made.
"We find it interesting chatting to managers about their projects, going to factories and seeing what they’re doing.
"We look at problems firms face and develop projects we think they’d be interested in. It’s a constant dialogue."
So, what did they discover about the benefits of packaging?
"We’ve got lots of interesting stories of cases where a company has been able to reduce their food waste by developing new packaging," Paul says.
"One project, for example, was about soft fruits, such as strawberries and raspberries. They have a very short shelf life, and as they mature they produce a lot of gasses. It’s better to release a lot of those gases, but others, such as oxygen, are better not released. The solution is to use a plastic film which has a certain number of holes, of a certain size, in it.
"One soft fruit company, in collaboration with Marks & Spencer, has developed a technique for having the correct number of holes in the film. The packaging is tailored to the specific fruit – whether it’s raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, whatever, it can potentially double the shelf life."
If products can last dramatically longer on the shelf, supermarkets and consumers can throw away a lot less rotten fruit.
And that’s not the only way that packaging helps us. There’s also the matter of health and hygiene, as Paul illustrates:
"Very often now you buy a chicken in a bag, and you put it in the oven to cook it in its packaging. That’s the dominant way now because it helps to reduce harmful bacteria on the chicken. Bacteria had been a big problem for producers."
Quite apart from what it does for our quality of life, that’s an example of packaging helping to ease the strain on our health service, by making food poisoning less likely.
Turns out packaging does some good in the world, after all. Where does the power lie?
Another significant area of research for Paul is the investigation of power relationships in the supply chain. In the food industry, this chain includes retailer, supplier and food processing factory.
Recent research in this area looked at whether retailers play a positive role in the development of new products in the food industry, or a harmful one.
"We show through our research examples where retailers are very negative because they’re always wanting price reductions," Paul says.
"Suppliers will say, we’ve got lots of new products, we want to do this, we can do that. Retailers will often say, no thanks, because it will increase the price. Or they’ll say, yes, fine, but we don’t want an increase in price."
We show through our research examples where retailers are very negative because they’re always wanting price reductions.
An example of this is the introduction of easy-to-open cans, designed to help older people who have lost strength. There are plenty of technologies and opportunities to bring such products to market. But retailers often say no.
Why is that? Because they have evidence which shows an increase in cost of just 1 or 2 pennies means that consumers will stop buying a product.
As Paul explains, this shows the power of retailers. Ultimately, introducing new products or not comes down to their decision. Producers are very concerned about upsetting retailers, because of their dominant position in the marketplace.
Paul and his team gathered data by speaking directly to companies, large and small, who supply a range of food retailers.
"Gathering such information is tricky because they’re wary of upsetting their big customers."
But when suppliers did talk, they didn’t hold back from painting a frustrating picture:
"They told us retailers will ask for one thing and you give them what they ask for, then they change their mind. They also overestimate orders, so they’ll say, send us 1,000, and when they only sell 500, they send the other 500 back. The cost all falls on the supplier."
Matters like this are covered by the Groceries Code Adjudicator in the UK. She is a key audience for research by Paul and his colleagues.
"What we’re doing is raising issues for the industry. Should they take action? Are the retailers too powerful?"
The Adjudicator has had some success in improving the behaviour of supermarkets. The research revealed problems across the whole sector, but supermarkets are starting to treat suppliers better. Future research from Portsmouth will hopefully influence further changes.
Why doesn’t the food industry invest heavily in new ideas?
Paul says one of the most significant pieces of recent research was all about identifying how the food industry develops new products.
When compared to other industries, the amount spent on research, innovation and development in food is tiny – just 1 per cent of all revenue.
The automotive industry, for example, employs large numbers of scientists and engineers, working in laboratories and designing factories to produce whole new models of car. Sectors like pharmaceuticals and software development are similar.
By comparison, the food industry is all about food processing and manufacturing. Research from the team at Portsmouth reveals a very different model of innovation.
In food production, there are large processing plants up and running. It’s all very process orientated, in order to make thousands and thousands of small products, such as tinned tomatoes or packets of curry powder. As a result, unlike in other industries, the innovation is dominated by the manufacturing.
"Very often," Paul explains, "the innovation occurs on the factory floor. They’re playing around with the machinery, and they’ll introduce new pieces of equipment. Or they might tweak a recipe.
"They use what we call trial and error activities – using and doing. Whereas in other industries, innovation is much more driven by science and technology – research and development. This is a unique characteristic.
"But there’s so much emphasis on cost, it affects new product development. It comes back to the supermarkets. They’ll say, we’ve got evidence that if we increase the price by 1 penny, it will influence sales quite dramatically."
Paul is clear that he is not saying this is good, bad or indifferent. But it is definitely noteworthy:
"Food manufacturing is the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK. You wouldn’t have to increase spending on research and development very much to have a dramatic impact.
"We’re not at a point where we can say it’s a good idea to invest as much as possible. But what we can say is there’s overwhelming evidence that firms that invest in research and development and innovation tend to outperform."
It’s certainly food for thought.
The group Paul leads has a reputation for helping industry solve problems around the areas of innovation and new product development. You may have experienced the results in your weekly shop.
For example, as part of a knowledge transfer partnership, a Portsmouth research student spent 2 years working at Bounce Foods, makers of protein energy snacks. He was involved in kitchen trials of new recipe concepts, along with the details of the manufacturing process.
What comes next?
At the moment, Paul and his team have a lot of projects in the food industry. But 10 years ago, that wasn’t the case. And in 10 years’ time, it will probably be different again. It’s a constant evolution, going wherever they can best help to manage the innovation process.
Since 1998, there has been one constant activity that complements Paul’s research. It may be what he is best known for within academia.
Innovation Management and New Product Development is the textbook Paul writes. Published by Pearson, it has become something of an industry bible.
Now on its 7th edition, the book is in print around the world and has been translated into a wide range of languages, including Chinese, Taiwanese and Portuguese.
While many of the principles and underpinning theory have remained constant for 20 years, every new edition involves a lot of updates. In particular, case studies are replaced, to demonstrate the latest developments. After all, when the first edition was published, the role of the internet in commerce was really just beginning.
Whether he is educating tomorrow’s product development professionals at the University or via the pages of his book, or going out and getting stuck in to solving companies’ problems, Paul is always helping to keep thinking in industry fresh:
"There are lots of ways for companies to improve, and one of them is to increase the amount of money they spend on research and development. What we try to do is increase the amount of opportunities that a company has to develop new products and new services."
And that means, whatever project comes next, there will always be a new and interesting challenge to explore.