While the food industry is often said to be more resilient in recession than other industries that do not produce goods that are essential for human survival, most companies have been keeping a close eye on cost in the last year. Firms reporting impressive growth have been in the minority.
But although the official visitor figures are not yet published, the mood at this year’s FiE was taken as a sign that fortunes are swinging up once more.
“The buzz level is back. The industry has found its mojo again,” said Angus Flood of PureCircle, who was one of many FiE attendees to have hot-footed it to Frankfurt straight from SupplySide West in Las Vegas.
The US was more devastated economically than mainland Europe so it is not yet back to pre-crash levels – but “it is a lot less gloomy than 2008”, he said.
However some big companies were noticeable by their absence, including Danisco and CP Kelco, and Cargill’s booth was more modest than in previous years. The deadline for confirming exhibitor space was October last year, when concern for the economy was at its most intense.
Christine Nicolay, global communications manager at Cargill Texturizing Solutions, agreed with Flood. “Industry is coming back,” she said.
While real innovations in consumer products have been few and far between, as no-one has wanted to hedge slim R&D budgets, ingredients firms have not switched off their innovation efforts, according to Nicolay. They have simply changed gear.
From hearing the marketing messages of many companies, including Cargill, it is clear that cost-reduction is a major priority. But if they can rise to the challenge of reducing costs without affecting quality, there will be no need for manufacturers to change back to the original, costlier formulations when the economy improves.
In the 1980s, when the first ‘light’ products came to market, there was a noticeable impact on quality. “The food industry cannot go back to that,” said Nicolay.
Hydrocolloids expert Dennis Seisun of IMR International observed a lot of innovation and changes related to product designation. Companies are improving aspects like traceability and certification – such as organic, fair trade and kosher – but they are not changing the taste or formulation of the product.