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Dutch Food Companies Share Secrets for Innovation and Product Consistency
by John W. McCurry
Patrons at the Restaurant of the Future on the campus of Wageningen University and Research (WUR) center in Wageningen, the Netherlands are participants in the most advanced field testing of food products. Food companies learn about food choice behavior and test new products on diners who willingly agree to have their eating habits observed.
The institution is part of a large, world-renowned food research infrastructure in the Netherlands focused on the development of new and improved foods. Clustered in a region south of Amsterdam known as the Food Valley, public and private research institutions tackle issues such as salt reduction and removing fat from ice cream. One of the leaders in this area is WUR. Within the center is the RIKILT Institute of Food Safety, carrying out independent research into the safety and quality of food. The institute, which specializes in the detection, identification, functionality, and effects of substances present in foodstuffs and animal feeds, carries out work for governmental bodies, non-governmental organizations, and corporations.
Another major source of Dutch food innovation comes from NIZO, a contract research firm based in Ede in the heart of Food Valley. With the largest food testing pilot plant in Europe, NIZO, which began its work in 1948 in dairy research and subsequently expanded to the broader food industry, has a long list of major food company clients, including Heinz and Coca-Cola. NIZO’s current work includes projects to reduce salt in foods such as bacon, bread, and cheese, with a reduction goal of 50%. Another project involves using proteins to replace fat in ice cream.
Bob Steetskamp, program director for the Dutch government’s agri-food program, said innovation is the key to the Netherlands maintaining its position as a global leader in food. “We created this leading export position over the last 100 years by exporting products we have in excess,” Steetskamp said. “In the future, that’s not enough. You have to innovate, make products accessible to people, and make them cheaper and better. Otherwise, anyone else can do it.”
The food sector is one of the Netherlands’ primary industries, and corporations put strong emphasis on quality assurance. Many companies work closely with the country’s food research cluster while also developing programs of their own. What follows is a look at the quality efforts of a cross-section of Dutch food companies.
• Hoogesteger, based in Zwanenburg, is a specialist in the processing of fresh juice, producing more than 17 million liters annually. Michiel van’t Thek, Hoogesteger’s managing director, said his company’s quality efforts begin with the selection of GlobalGAP-certified fruits from dedicated growers. “We have strict internal controls and the highest BRC and HACCP grades,” van’t Thek noted. “We work with fresh oranges, apples, pears, kiwis, melons, mangos, and so on.”
Hoogesteger sells only fresh juice, which until recently had a shelf life of just eight days. While that was sufficient for the Dutch market, the juice didn’t last long enough for greater Europe. The company worked with WUR on a project using pulsed electric field technology to neutralize microbes by exposing food to brief electric pulses. The process, which extends shelf life to 21 days, does not change the nutritional value or other aspects of the juice’s quality.
Van’t Thek said the results have been excellent so far. “Customer feedback is that the juices are similar to the Fresh 8 shelf life, and there is less waste for retailers and wholesalers.”
• The French dairy firm Danone extended its presence in the Netherlands with the 2007 acquisition of Royal Numico, a specialist in baby and medical nutrition, also known as Nutricia. Danone subsequently decided to expand in the country and will soon open an innovation center that will focus on nutrition science targeted to age-specific or health-vulnerable groups.
“Because of the exceptionally vulnerable health status of many of our consumers and patients, food quality and food safety have always been a fundamental pillar, not only of our specialized nutrition manufacturing sites, but also of our research and product development teams,” said company spokesman William Green. “In the case of our medical nutrition business—and also, for a great part, our baby nutrition business—this work continues to be planned, executed, and monitored in and from the Netherlands by our highly qualified QFS teams.”
The food sector is one of the Netherlands’ primary industries, and corporations put strong emphasis on quality assurance. Many companies work closely with the country’s food research cluster while also developing programs of their own.
• Heinz has had a presence in the Netherlands since 1958, when it started selling ketchup and sandwich spread, and has grown significantly ever since through the acquisition of several well-known Dutch brands. The company, which employs about 1,200 in the Benelux region, has made food quality a major priority.
“We have very strict quality guidelines in place that ensure we are compliant with local and European food regulations,” noted Peter Boterman, a spokesman for Heinz’ operations in the Netherlands. “All of our products are extensively tested before launch with consumers and internally via sensory panels. We have strong measures in place to ensure we produce in compliance with our internal, strict quality standards and have processes in place to continuously improve our operations, ways of working, and processes.”
• New Zealand-based FrieslandCampina, one of the largest dairy conglomerates in the world, has the largest operation in the Netherlands, with annual revenues of about $12.7 billion. The company plans to open a new innovation center this year in Wageningen.
FrieslandCampina’s quality and safety program, “Foqus,” concentrates on ensuring safety and quality throughout the entire chain, from farm to distribution. Foqus requires that each production location to have at least one certificate recognized by the Global Food and Safety Initiative (GFSI), a collaboration of several of the world’s largest retail, manufacturing, and food service companies. GFSI uses a benchmarking procedure to set food safety requirements. FrieslandCampina said its Foqus program goes beyond the standard criteria and is customized for the company.
Specifically, Foqus sets targets that include change control, good hygiene practices, good manufacturing practices, tracking and tracing, crisis management, and supplier management. Change control involves a procedure to execute changes in processes in a secure manner. All changes have to be documented so they can be retrieved at a later stage.
• One of the most unique food companies in the Netherlands is Koppert Cress, specializing in cresses, the seedlings of unique plants. Koppert Cress develops these micro-vegetables as a collection, which it describes as “Architecture Aromatique.” The company traces its history back to 1987, but its major growth began in 2002 when it was acquired by current owner Rob Baan. Koppert Cress markets its products to chefs, caterers, and hotels in Europe from its headquarters in Monster. In 2008, the company opened a greenhouse on Long Island, N.Y., to supply the U.S. market.
Koppert Cress spokeswoman Hélène Bénard said all of the company’s procedures are conducted according to HACCP and SQF 2000 standards, which ensure that produce is cultivated and processed in a clean and responsible manner. Koppert Cress produces all of its seeds and grows them to food-grade standards. All cresses are grown in greenhouses.
“In the seed production, as well as pre-harvest and post-harvest, we [take] into account that we will use the seeds for food,” Bénard said. “Koppert Cress works with WUR and has good contacts with the Dutch food safety authorities.”
The enterohemorrhagic E. coli bacteria outbreak in Europe in 2011 put the spotlight squarely on fruit and vegetable safety. Bénard said Koppert Cress had all of its safety measurements in place during that crisis.
“The headache was to convince the politicians and governmental players that we and our colleagues were food safe,” Bénard said. “Unfortunately, ignorant politicians brought up crazy statements. And officials tumbled over each other in trying to repair the government’s blunders. Our job was to keep our head cool and [keep] repeating the message that we are a good, safe industry.”
As part of its quality efforts, Koppert Cress works with many of the Netherland’s established food research institutions. The company shares its knowledge with others in the food sector.
“We prefer to focus on better taste and surprising shapes and colors,” Bénard said. “We have found better techniques to grow, harvest, store, and prepare the seeds. We have high-level employees and don’t cut on labor costs.”
Most importantly, she added, Koppert Cress operates with three major rules: “Be clean, be clean, and be clean.”
John W. McCurry is an Atlanta-based writer and editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.