Kerry’s “culinary journey”: Targeting authentic taste, preservation, proactive health, plant-based
Being at the heart of future sustainable food and health systems
28 Mar 2022 --- With more than 30 years in the food industry, Thomas Hahlin Ahlinder joined Kerry as President and CEO for Europe & Russia just over a year ago. During an in-depth interview with FoodIngredientsFirst, he examines Kerry’s strategic priorities, including plant protein, preservation, reducing waste, sustainability and taste.
Ahlinder has a unique angle. He came into Kerry with a wealth of knowledge during the early lockdown phase, diving into the possibilities for the portfolio from home-working in Sweden, virtually making introductions with his team.
His long-established career – spanning roles in companies like Danisco, Kivik Holdings, DuPont Nutrition and Health and as Executive Board Member at Döhler GmbH – gave him insight into the capabilities of what he describes as the “powerhouse” of Kerry.
“There’s just so much we can do and do well,” Ahlinder says.
The power of perspective
Ahlinder explains: “I’ve looked at Kerry as a competitor, from a competitor lens, which is a different way of sifting inside and seeing the depth and breadth of the capabilities within the organization, as well as the portfolio.”
“Coming in and getting under the hood of Kerry has been a super exciting journey. I have learned a lot in terms of our technologies and just how strong we are in preservation, for example.”
Ahlinder explains how Kerry is committed to investing in developing innovative sustainable technologies, which will be at the heart of future sustainable food and health systems.
“We have a very clear plan of our strategic pillars for growth. We really want to accelerate our growth, going forward - profitable growth that we can reinvest into the business.”
He highlights “authentic taste” as a cornerstone pillar for this year and beyond.
“This (authentic taste) falls within the flavor side of the portfolio, where we have a very strong position in the marketplace and are a global leader in a number of different technologies,” he continues.
“Then comes preservation and the huge issue of reducing waste as well as what we call ‘proactive health,’ which is our complete health offering. This is strongly backed up with clinical studies and documented benefits for consumers.”
“The fourth pillar, which comprises many different technologies from the previous three - plant-based.”
The four pillars are also underpinned by Kerry’s sustainability agenda.
“Last October, Kerry launched ‘Beyond the Horizon,’ our total sustainability agenda, which we are fine-tuning along the way,” Ahlinder says.
The company has increased its targets for Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions reduction from 33% to 55% by 2030. This ambitious goal strengthens Kerry’s commitments, including a target to halve its food waste by 2030.
Drilling down on sustainability details
Further defining sustainability will be crucial throughout 2022. Consumer demand for more transparency on how their food is made, its environmental, ethical and societal impacts gather pace constantly, and the scrutiny will continue to grow.
A company like Kerry knows it’s vital to invest in sustainability and how one of its commitments – pegged as “ ”reaching two billion people” with nutrition by 2030 – needs to be achieved.
“Today, we forecast we are reaching one billion. And when we look at ‘sustainable nutrition,’ that’s about how can we help in enhancing the nutritional profile wherever the customers are and in whatever application they play.”
“We have been doing this already for decades, so it’s not a new thought but a continuous journey, and we are truly looking at which role can we play, with our portfolio, or to help our customers advance in the nutritional space without compromising anything on the sustainability agenda.”
“Phenomenal opportunity”: Kerry poised for plant-based growth
Zeroing in on the plant-based evolution, Ahlinder underscores how he has never seen a market opportunity quite like plant-based during many years in the industry.
“Normally, we all talk about emerging markets and rapid population growth that is going to drive consumption, but even in a more mature market like Europe, which is my space, there is a phenomenal opportunity,” he says.
The industry may have only just gone beyond “scratching the surface,” Ahlinder explains.
“There is plenty of headroom here. This market is probably going to continue growing 12% year-over-year, and, with that said, we are only in the early stages. We are not 1.0 anymore; we are probably 3.0. There’s plenty of evolution ahead.”
Why does plant-based resonate so powerfully?
In line with Innova Market Insights Top Ten Trends for 2022 “Shared Planet” and “Plant-Based: A Canvas for Innovation,” Ahlinder talks passionately about this particular space and connection between human and planet health.
“Plant-based is hugely connected to sustainability and saving the planet. The younger generation also looks very differently at consuming food and is looking for alternatives. They are very well-educated and look at it from ‘what’s in the formulation,’ ‘what does good for me and the planet and society,” he continues.
“These factors driving much of the change that we see in the industry, and industry is responding very fast now with a massive amount of start-ups and a lot of equity being plugged into this part of the industry.”
“To be good for people, as well as good for the planet. We are embedding this into everything we do when it comes to our portfolio management. We are ranking our products like a traffic light system to make sure they are contributing.”
The artform of knowing what ‘alternative’ really means
There is rising consumer demand for meat and meat alternatives with no artificial preservatives due to concerns around food safety and sustainability. As a result, brands and manufacturers are increasingly turning to clean label food preservation technologies.
Companies like Kerry have a key role to play in plant-based and particularly in helping companies with the formulation of alternatives, which often comes with a host of challenges.
“If you want to have a meat alternative, it should also behave, taste and function like meat. That’s ‘the thing’ that you have to resolve,” Ahlinder explains.
Without it, brands will not win over meat-eaters in terms of overall taste and meaty mouthfeel experience. “When your goal is to drive alternative solutions, you need to have a good understanding of what you are actually trying to be ‘alternative’ against to make sure that you have the right properties in your solution from, for example, chewability, taste, and the total mimicking aspect,” Ahlinder adds.
“What you see in the plant-based space is that if it doesn’t taste good, then there is no repeat purchase. They might try it, but then they will stop, and that’s it.”
“This is a space where I am passionate about Kerry’s ability to address all these different dynamics. We are very seriously going after plant-based and driving technologies to support our customers,” he says.
Plant-based is sometimes referred to as an industry in its own right. It certainly attracts mass investment with significant amounts of money coming into the market to support start-ups wanting to scale-up products quickly.
“This is super exciting and provides a lot of opportunities but also for them (start-ups), a lot of challenges. How do you, as an entrepreneur, bring your great idea to scale, and how do you globalize it, or at least increase your penetration?” Ahlinder says.
“This is where Kerry, with our global footprint, can truly help and support. To drive this evolution in the market.”
Ahlinder says that Europe, in its own right, is a very exciting place to be because of the innovation opportunities. Even considering the big alternative US meat companies like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, Europe still leads, he says.
“Europe is leading the pack here if you look at the evolution of the start-ups coming up and the speed with which things are happening,” he affirms.
Preservation and reducing food waste
The way we look at food waste has to change. The fact that so much industrially-produced food is wasted is critical to address, Ahlinder emphasizes.
“There are many technologies focused on prolonging shelf life and reducing waste. Consider the circular economy model and the burgeoning sector of upcycling otherwise discarded waste – transforming waste into ingredients and solutions with real added value. Opportunities are vast,” he comments.
“You see ideas in industry like if I’m a meat processor, can I drive circularity? What’s needed to enable that? This is exactly where Kerry is positioned; to work with those companies and help them on that journey,” he says.
“Equally, another may be making local bread with a slightly longer shelf life, and they want to expand that without having a huge list of unwanted ingredients. This whole space of helping the industry to reduce waste is going to be fundamental in the marketplace.”
Food waste and the enormous task to deal with it properly was initially a major theme some years back. Perhaps it lost a little ground but is now returning as a critical issue, and companies want to deal with it with renewed vigor, Ahlinder muses.
“As part of this increased focus on sustainability, everyone knows that food waste is something we need to get fixed. This is why we have invested in acquiring Niacet, for example, to add on adjacent technologies to our portfolio that were already strong in the beginning, especially on the clean label side,” he adds.
“But now we have different technologies, so whatever customers are asking for, we will have the technology to support them.”
Kerry’s past, present and future
Ahlinder has delved into some key ingredients Kerry has of its own to push innovation, drive nutrition and be a big part of future food, including propelling the plant-based arena.
Blending old and new is an interesting point also to mention, he adds.
“Our very proud heritage, which comes from a dairy and savory background and where it all started, shows we have unique knowledge about how those products are composed. And then what needs to be happening when you do ‘the alternative’.”
Kerry also has a strong global chef network to perform “the artistry of the culinary journey,” Ahlinder points out.
“You bring the heritage, that chef network and the technologies together – that’s what sets us apart in this space and why we truly believe we can play a role in helping our customers overcome those challenges and bring tasty, nutritious alternatives to the market.”
By Gaynor Selby
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