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Convenience is king in food product innovation

WASHINGTON -- Fully cooked bacon. Individually wrapped string cheese and cheese pre-sliced to fit crackers neatly. Drinkable yogurt. Tuna packed in foil packets that don't need to be drained of water or oil. Prepared beef and chicken entrees that...

WASHINGTON -- Fully cooked bacon. Individually wrapped string cheese and cheese pre-sliced to fit crackers neatly. Drinkable yogurt. Tuna packed in foil packets that don't need to be drained of water or oil. Prepared beef and chicken entrees that merely need to be popped in the microwave for a few minutes prior to serving.

You may have purchased at least one of these items "just to try it" and then became hooked. After sampling fully cooked bacon, for example, it may be difficult to go back to the traditional method of frying bacon and cleaning up the grease it inevitably creates.

These are just a few of the newer food items shoppers now find on store shelves, even in many smaller towns, and they all are designed with convenience and ease of preparation in mind.

One interesting aspect of these new-fangled products is that they aren't new foods, per se. These products are unique because the level of preparation required of the consumer is next to nothing. The manufacturer has taken care of the food preparation so that time in the kitchen is minimal.

Another key aspect is price. While these items may be priced higher than less-prepared food products that require more effort by the purchaser, the manufacturer has determined that the desire for convenience trumps shoppers' cost concerns. In short, these are classic, value-added products.

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What consumers want

"Consumers' desire for convenience is pulling these innovations through the supply chain," says Stefphanie Gambrell, the American Farm Bureau Federation's domestic policy economist. "Consumers demand variety and convenience, and the agricultural products that farmers produce are the first step in this process."

Today's American consumers are surrounded by an abundance of food choices. Because of the higher standard of living in the United States, the population wants and demands better food. While disposable incomes have continued to increase over time, this has not caused consumers to purchase more food. Instead, exotic fruits and vegetables, better cuts of meat and prepared foods are the sought-after choices. They have traded up their tastes.

According to studies by the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service, American consumers with disposable incomes can choose to devote their extra funds to food products that focus on quality, delivery and presentation, as opposed to increased volume. In the end, this means manufacturers and retailers place more emphasis on marketing concepts and value-added benefits to attract precious consumer dollars.

"At the end of the day," Gambrell says, "the products that are being introduced revolve around market demand, and that's particularly true with these value-added products. Many times, these products become highly successful."

Spending money

And even when higher prices are factored in for these value-added food products, Americans still benefit from one of the world's safest, most affordable and most abundant food supplies. U.S. consumers spend just 10 percent of their disposable income on food each year, less than citizens in any other country. In France, consumers spend 15 percent of their disposable income on food annually, compared with 26 percent in China and a whopping 55 percent in Indonesia, according to ERS data.

So the next time you reach for a value-added convenience item at your favorite grocery store, whether it's to sample a new product or make a repeat purchase of something you've come to enjoy regularly, remember that it was designed to address your wants as much as your needs. And it all began back on the farm or ranch.

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Editor's Note: Keller is a director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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