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Food Briefs

Product-Introduction Rate Decline Reported After Marketing Setbacks

June 02, 1988|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The rate of new food-product introductions has slowed in recent months as manufacturers retrench after a series of marketing setbacks, according to an industry analyst who charts the field.

In fact, the number of food and household items that will enter retail channels this year is expected to increase only modestly over 1987's totals, according to Martin J. Friedman, editor of Gorman's New Product News.

And most of the entries in 1988, he added, will be simple flavor additions or size variations of existing brands.

"The major national food companies are worried about introducing too many dogs. The failures (in recent years) have had a chilling effect," Friedman said. "There is now an aura of caution. . . . Consumers were not responding (to previous offerings)."

Another problem facing manufacturers is "slotting allowances," demanded by the supermarket chains, he said. The so-called allowances are, in essence, cash incentives paid by food companies to the retailers for rent of precious store shelf space, already clogged by the more than 30,000 items that markets typically carry.

Even so, Friedman says that significant changes are under way in the processed-food world but that the developments are based more on packaging innovations than ingredient formulations.

"There is a major revolution under way that will change the way people buy, prepare and serve food," he said. "The next five years will be exciting."

Those categories likely to be in the forefront of this movement are microwaveable products, refrigerated foods and shelf-stable entrees.

Several examples of these recently introduced items are worth noting.

Quick & Convenient--For more than a decade fast-food chains have been the supermarket industry's nemesis. Now the grocers have an opportunity to strike back with microwaveable sandwiches that are ready in minutes.

"People seem to be on the fastest time track in history. And manufacturers are responding. As a result, you can now have fast food at home," said Friedman.

Geo. A. Hormel & Co. is making a major introduction in this area with its New Traditions line of frozen food. Typical fast-food fare--cheeseburgers, chicken-breast patties on sesame seed rolls and fillet of fish sandwiches--are among the selections offered by Hormel. There are a total of 20 different New Traditions products, including a full line of breakfast offerings. Some of the familiar morning-meal combinations, each served on a buttermilk biscuit, include sausage/egg, Canadian bacon/egg/cheese or steak.

The Austin, Minn.,-based firm plans to add other items to its "real food, real fast, at home," concept shortly.

Swift-Eckrich Inc. is going a touch more upscale in the morning food competition with its Brown 'N Serve Breakfast Sandwiches by using croissants. The frozen combinations include bacon/egg as well as ham/cheese. The name Brown 'N Serve is a bit misleading because the sandwiches are all microwaveable and ready in minutes. Swift also has the traditional sausage/egg on biscuits or English muffins.

But Hormel, for now, has the last word in breakfast foods: Bacon specially packaged for the microwave. Inside each package of Hormel's Microwave line are four separate packets. Each plastic-enclosed pack contains four bacon strips. A paper-like material absorbs the grease inside each of the bag-like containers that, when microwaved, fully cook the bacon in four minutes. The ease in preparation and clean-up has prompted Hormel to claim, in promotional material, that the product, "could easily make frying bacon obsolete."

Friedman, in noting the recent Hormel entries, said that the company is on the leading edge of microwaveable foods.

Anytime Meals--One of the more important introductions supporting Friedman's contention is Hormel's Top Shelf--fully prepared entrees that do not require refrigeration.

In a sense, the process is a descendant of both canned and frozen food. Whereas the 10 available Top Shelf varieties resemble a typical frozen main dish, the technology used to allow items like lasagna to sit on store or pantry shelves is faintly similar to canned foods.

The food is placed in sterilized plastic trays and sealed airtight. Then the containers are pressure-cooked. The end product is, therefore, not susceptible to normal spoilage. Top Shelf, however, cannot be heated in a conventional oven and must be microwaved or heated (well sealed) in boiling water.

While Top Shelf is likely to cut into sales of premium frozen entrees, a new style of can will soon modernize one of the oldest food packagings. The containers, known as omni cans, are actually a plastic cup sealed with a metal lid.

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