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Thinking Inside the Box

Ethan Watters | January 6, 2020


Reaching an ambitious packaging reduction goal: 25 million pounds by the year 2020

The Process

Each year the packaging R&D team selects the projects with the biggest potential impact and collectively shepherds 40 to 60 of them to completion. That means keeping pace toward the 2020 goal gets harder year over year. “You start by picking the watermelons, and then you move to the grapefruits,” said Miller, using a farm metaphor. “Soon you’re down to picking grapes.” That is, to become more innovative over time, the team has had to look for increasingly fine-grained improvements.

Some projects can still create large savings. In 2017, decreasing the weight of the cap on the SKIPPY® peanut butter jar reduced total material used by over 790,000 pounds. But many changes are now on a smaller scale, like the redesign of the display case for Hormel® Black Label® bacon, which saved 91,000 pounds.

Changing a package, particularly any part that touches the food, is never simple. Even the smallest tweak requires a combined effort of many team members across the company and an extensive review. A new shipping box must prove that it will keep its integrity over the course of travel. Even more important, a jar, can or pouch containing a food product must show that it can keep the food safe throughout its shelf life.

“There are two things that we won’t do,” said Miller. “We won’t make a change if it impacts either the quality or the safety of the product. Those are the forefront things that we always keep in mind, and if either is at risk, we aren’t going to do it.”

When it comes to testing these changes, Hormel Foods has a huge advantage in its new state-of-the-art R&D lab. While many food companies farm out their food safety and testing work, Hormel Foods has cutting-edge equipment and a dedicated staff always on hand.

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“We have a lot of capabilities here that people don’t know about,” said Miller. “We only have to walk down to the R&D facility to talk to a scientist about how a particular product behaves so we can make sure that product stays perfect for consumers. That helps us make changes relatively quickly. But having those resources inhouse also means that the knowledge we gain with each project can be applied to the next.”

One challenge the group faces is that packages change along with consumers’ eating habits. “Consumers want portability and smaller portions,” packaging engineer Chad Donicht explained. “They want just the right size so when they open the package, food isn’t wasted. That’s where a lot of the fast changes are coming right now.”

The packaging R&D team believes it’s on track to meet its challenge. “We’re at 99 percent of our 2020 goal of 25 million pounds,” said Miller. “And we’re planning on getting there.”

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