Recognized as one of the 100 most innovative companies on the planet by business publication Forbes, BRF, a Brazilian multinational, is one of the global giants in the food sector. In June 2013 it officially opened its new research and development center. The 10,000-square-meter BRF Innovation Center was built in Jundiaí, about 60 km from the city of São Paulo, using the principles of sustainable architecture. The equipment and the laboratories in the center are the latest generation, and there are experimental kitchens and mini-factories for pilot production. The unit will be responsible for innovations in meats and ready-to-eat dishes, margarine and vegetable proteins. The projects in the agriculture sector will continue to be divided among several production units. According to Nilvo Mittanck, Vice President of Operations and Technology at BRF, the Innovation Center was intended to be a benchmark for technological development in the food sector in Brazil and around the world. “The Center will be a model inside the company and outside, not only for creating new business, but also in problem-solving. Our goal is to save time on projects and customer service.”
The new Research and Development (R&D) Center was set up in the same complex where a distribution center and a corporate reference laboratory were already operating. BRF is a partnership of Sadia and Perdigão that was established in 2009. The Jundiaí unit brings together activities that in the past were carried out in the Perdigão research centers located in Videira in the state of Santa Catarina, and the Sadia center, in Vila Anastácio, a district in the city of São Paulo. The concentration of innovation activities into a single location, according to the company, fostered synergy between the researchers and the marketing team, which is based in São Paulo. “This way, we are more in tune with consumer expectations,” says Ralf Piper, Director of R&D and quality at BRF. Another advantage of the Innovation Center is its strategic location close to major technology hubs and consumer markets. “The fact that Jundiaí is near major research centers and universities such as USP (the University of São Paulo), Unicamp (the University of Campinas), the IPT (the São Paulo Institute for Technological Research) and units that are part of Embrapa (the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), was also an important factor in selecting the city where our innovation center would be located,” according to Piper, who has a degree in veterinary medicine and began working at Sadia in 1991. The cost of the new research center was R$58 million and the 150 professionals that are employed there include food engineers, nutritionists, chemists, pharmacists and veterinarians.
The BRF Innovation Center project is part of the company’s goal of doubling investment in research, development and innovation by 2015, although the company did not disclose the total amount invested in this area. There are four areas: creation and research, application, cooking and sensorial analysis. The most novel component of the structure is a pilot plant in the area of application, consisting of mini-production lines for testing and monitoring the various phases of development for product and packaging designs. “We no longer have to depend on the production units to conduct these evaluations. We are able to simulate production on a large scale, forecast costs and test process parameters and the quality features of new products,” Mittanck says emphatically.
The pilot plant houses processing lines for meat-based products such as cured meats as well as breaded products, margarine, pasta and sweets, in addition to packaging. The areas are customized and can be tweaked for different types of equipment and processes. “This new facility will generate gains in productivity because it will transform pilot-scale production to an industrial scale. It is not always easy to do this in a factory because you have to wait for just the right moment on the production line to test the innovation,” says José Roberto Gonçalves, Director of Quality Planning and Knowledge Management at the BRF Innovation Center.
The complex has one other distinguishing feature: There are five experimental kitchens for the group’s strategic clients, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Subway. “We set up special kitchens for global accounts. In the kitchens we reproduce the clients’ facilities with similar equipment and we develop products together,” says Gonçalves. These kitchens are also places where training is held as well as communication activities and sensorial testing. “We conduct blind tests of our products with trained employees who are capable of perceiving slight differences in flavor, aroma and texture. The sensorial analysis with the end-user is conducted in São Paulo,” he explains.
BRF, whose name was Brasil Foods when it was founded, owns the Perdigão, Sadia, Batavo and Elegê brands as well as others. BRF is one of the largest global companies in the food sector. With net revenue of R$28.5 billion in 2012, BRF operates in the following sectors: meat (poultry, pork and beef), processed meat, dairy products, margarine, pasta, pizza and frozen vegetables. BRF has 114,000 employees and operates 50 plants in Brazil. In addition, there are nine industrial units in Argentina and two in Europe: one in England and another in the Netherlands. A new industrial unit is scheduled to open in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in the first half of 2014. The decision to move into the Middle East is justified by the fact that this region is a fundamental market for the company since its products are exported to more than 120 countries on the five continents. In China, BRF recently opened a joint venture with Dah Chong Hong Limited to distribute its products in that country’s market.
The Jundiaí R&D Center will be in charge of many new products that BRF will launch in the Brazilian and global market over the coming years. BRF has over 3,000 products in its portfolio, 450 of which were launched in 2012. By the third quarter of 2013, BRF had delivered 169 products to the market, in addition to the expansions of product lines, the figure for which is actually much larger. Not all of these products are innovative or distinctive, as Director Ralf Piper explains. “The products could be a yogurt with a new flavor or a lasagna that was produced in a different size. The innovative products, which really are distinctive, are called breakthroughs.” Examples of these products are the Perdigão line of mayonnaise made with sunflower oil, the Sadia family of lasagnas produced with whole grain pasta and Batavo Greek drinking yogurt, the first of its kind launched in Brazil.
However, the new items that BRF produces are not limited to launching new products. The company also invests in innovative technology processes and research to reduce sodium, fat and sugar in its products. “The quest for healthier products is an ongoing challenge in the innovation sector,” Piper says. Through the work of a group of researchers led by chemical engineer Paulo Donizeti Guarnieri, the company has made progress in developing a substance that can replace salt in its foods. “Salt makes food more flavorful, and it is important for conserving foods as well. Salt maintains product stability and ensures that the expiration date is accurate,” Guarnieri explains. The problem is that consuming too much salt is associated with a number of chronic diseases, including hypertension. As a result, the Ministry of Health and the Brazilian Food Industry Association (Abia) signed an agreement in 2011 to lower the sodium content in mass-produced foods. “We are unable to reveal any further details, but I can say that this substance that is an alternative to salt is already being used in our products on an experimental basis,” the Director of R&D reveals.
Another recent innovation in the process area is sterilizing meat-based products. The team, coordinated by technical consultant Gustavo Menengoti Ribeiro, has spent a few months testing a new piece of equipment that uses a cold pasteurization process. “We will be the first meat company in Brazil and the second in all sectors to adopt HPP or high pressure pasteurization technology,” Ribeiro notes. According to him, the advantage of this cold pasteurization process is that it maintains the sensorial characteristics of the food, and the change in flavor and texture is minimal. “The use of this technology should begin between two and four years from now for some products with a higher added value” according to the BRF researcher. “The technology will pasteurize any food. It’s as though the product was submerged in a water column 60 km deep, thus drastically reducing the presence of microorganisms.”
One of the pillars of the company’s innovation is that it works together with universities and research centers. Food engineer Maria Cristina Youn Lui and chemist Adriana Regina Martin coordinate this open innovation area. “We have between 20 and 30 open innovation projects with cutting-edge institutions, including USP, Unicamp, the University of Santa Maria (UFSM) in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, IPT and Embrapa Agroindústria in Rio de Janeiro. We seek to fund projects that focus on applied research and the development of new technologies and processes,” Martin says. The department also is responsible for obtaining funds for innovation from development agencies such as the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Brazilian Innovation Agency (Finep).
The first partnership agreement that was signed since the innovation policy was formalized three years ago was carried out with the Department of Food Technology at UFSM in Rio Grande do Sul. “I am unable to provide the details of the project because it is confidential. But I can say that it deals with innovation in the area of processes,” says Lui. “As we strengthen our relations with academia, which is where cutting-edge research is being conducted, we share human resources and speed up the training of our professionals. The projects, which develop innovation at BRF, are positive for the company and for the partner institutions,” says Ralf Piper.Republish