The food processing industry has always been attentive to the ingredients that go into its products. But we're living in a time when that scrutiny is coming from without as well as within. From impending food safety legislation to contemporary consumer preferences, the relationship between food processors and their ingredients has never been so vital.
While this is an industry-wide trend, each sector of the industry faces particular challenges and solutions when it comes to ensuring food-chain safety.
David Van Laar is eminently well-positioned to reflect on the evolving landscape of food chain safety in the cookie and cracker industry. Van Laar spent 37 years in the business–all but the final two years as a baker. He started out at Pepperidge Farm, then moved to President Baking Company (eventually bought by Keebler), finally becoming CEO of a contract manufacturer for major international labels of cookies and crackers. Since retiring two years ago, he's devoted his time to his role as President of the Biscuit and Cracker Manufacturers Association (B&CMA).
Today, Van Laar says, even the smallest bakery “traces every pound of every ingredient that goes through it.” We spoke to him about how cookie and cracker manufacturers arrived at this degree of vigilance, and how they make it work.
Health: Separating fact from myth
Though spurred by his personal experiences with high cholesterol and heart disease, Sokolof's concern became a national crusade. Saturated fats, a staple of such beloved comfort foods as Oreos and Keebler Club crackers, were out, and other lower-fat oils were in. Van Laar recalls the time and money — millions of dollars, he estimates — that the cookie and cracker industry spent reducing tropical oil usage.
The irony, of course, is that more current research suggests tropical oils aren't as bad as all that. Today, some people claim that coconut oil, which was highly demonized in the '80s, is actually a health food (though the research doesn't support that either).
In any case, after removing tropical oils in response to consumer sentiment, the industry's having to spend the money to reformulate their products once again. This task is made even more complex by the FDA's 2015 ban on trans fats, with which companies have three years to comply.
Van Laar isn't dismissive of health concerns. But he is wary of the ways in which concerns become trends become crusades — often without quite enough hard facts in the mix. “We have to separate hype from science,” he says.
He offers the example of gluten, the ingredient that's on every baker's mind these days. Only around 1% of the US population has celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the small intestine. But many consumers are going gluten-free simply because they believe that not eating gluten is “better” for them.
Such inclinations, Van Laar suggests, rest on shaky ground. And the research backs him up. Health experts like Peter H.R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, note that while for people with celiac disease, eating gluten-free is a must, for others, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
The challenge of recreating comfort foods
While reformulating products based on consumer trends is a challenge across the food industry, Van Laar thinks it strikes his field particularly hard. “Cookies are comfort food,” he says. And when a company reformulates a product, “consumers demand that it tastes like the original.”
If it's so difficult to remake old favorites with new ingredients, why doesn't the industry focus on creating entirely new products to satisfy consumers with a “healthier” bent?
Well, they tried, and at great cost, but in the end, consumers don't really want healthy cookies.
It's a challenge, Van Laar says, to make cookies that are actually “good for you.” He recalls the 2000 Quaker Oats/Novartis joint venture to create functional foods. They produced a cookie that “tasted pretty good,” but the product was unsuccessful and the partnership dissolved within two years.
Overall, according to Van Laar, healthy, niche products remain a sidebar in the cookie and cracker industry — even as niche products are transforming other sectors of the industry. Cookies are comfort food, and even when people say that they eat healthily, sales numbers show that consumers still reach for their old favorites.
That doesn't mean that there's no market for healthy cookies and crackers, just that it is currently relatively small. Van Laar sees some momentum for larger companies to buy into successful, smaller products. And the B&CMA fields constant requests from startup players in niche markets who want help in development or are looking for someone to produce their product.
So there may yet be gold out there waiting to be struck. Someone just needs to create a healthy cookie that tastes as good as the ones Grandma used to make.
The equipment to do the job right
To develop good-tasting healthier cookies, the industry will need the right equipment for the job. The equipment used to create a standard chocolate chip cookie doesn't perform the same with gluten-free dough, or with dough that uses liquid sweetener. What are cookie and cracker companies doing to make sure they've got the tools they need to get the job done right?
Van Laar speaks with great confidence about this part of the equation. He says, “My biggest successes in the industry came from partnering with the right equipment manufacturers, and doing it early.” Rather than waiting until the product was fully formulated, manufacturers developed their equipment along with the product, so both parties could deal with issues as they arose. Because development time is in years, not days, starting early gives the equipment time to adapt to the needs of new product.
In general, Van Laar says, the cookie and cracker industry does a great job of maintaining these sorts of close working relationships. Much of this networking happens at the B&CMA Annual Convention. These gatherings are relatively small — around 200 attendees, including allied suppliers, equipment manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, and bakers — so “no one gets lost.” And there are opportunities for plenty of one-on-one conversations between players across the industry.
The B&CMA's annual Technical Conference, held each spring, provides another great opportunity for problem-solving around equipment adaptability. The first two days of the conference are dedicated to sessions that highlight current technical issues that bakers are facing. For example, a session might explore the challenges of depositing a sugar-free product.
The third day of the conference is then comprised of practical demonstrations in a laboratory setting. Everyone in the industry can thus understand the ways that, say, reducing the amount of sugar in a cookie affects its size. And the roomful of experts can troubleshoot the issue — together.
But of course, managing sugar or saturated fats to meet consumer demand for healthy products is only one of the ingredient-related issues the industry faces. And while some consumer interest in healthier products might be mere lip-service, the food safety side of the conversation is deathly serious.
Is the cookie and cracker industry doing all it can to track allergens and avoid contaminants?
Van Laar thinks it is. In his many decades in the industry, he has seen companies grow exponentially in their awareness of potential allergens and the risks of cross-contamination. And testing for allergens and other contaminants has become quick and comprehensive. Laboratories like the one run by the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska, for example, offer their allergen testing services to the baking industry.
Van Laar has also seen cleaning validation procedures greatly improve during his years in the business. Cleaning validation can begin on-site through visual inspection and swab/lateral flow strip testing. Labs like FARRP's can then provide additional testing to ensure that contamination does not occur.
In addition to testing and tracing ingredients, one of the most important ways to ensure food safety is equipment sanitization. And once again, equipment manufacturers are rising to the needs of the industry they serve. New bakery equipment is expertly designed with more effective sanitation in mind.
As in any industry, effective implementation of changing protocols around ingredients and food safety in the cookie and cracker business relies on a well-trained workforce. And Van Laar's field has been facing the same talent crunch as his colleagues across the food processing spectrum.
Thankfully, the B&CMA is stepping up to the plate with a comprehensive education program. The Association's online Learning Management System (LMS) offers baker education at the entry level, as well as more advanced training for intermediate and experienced workers.
In response to member requests, the B&CMA also started offering hands-on education in the plants themselves. These on-site trainings provide certification for positions such as rotary machine operation. B&CMA's robust training program also takes the burden off of equipment manufacturers to train bakery employees by providing companies with the tools to train their workers themselves.
Challenges and successes
Health vs. indulgence. Safety vs. speed. The talent crunch.
At the end of the day, the challenges the cookie and cracker industry faces are in line with the current state of the entire food processing industry.
But Van Laar remains hopeful that his industry is putting the necessary tools in place to succeed in the 21st century. And he knows that no one company can do it alone. “Associations like B&CMA and the FPSA have a unique role to fill,” Van Laar says. “They're good for the industry — and good for the consumer.