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The product developer is a rather elusive creature. What does your job entail exactly?

CE: I create products, concepts, and ideas for the future. I anticipate what consumers will be eating tomorrow, while still taking into account the way we eat today, both at restaurants and at home.

BDB: Exactly. 70% of the products or ideas I come up with, are concepts that have been requested by one of our customers. The additional 30% consists of innovative products we would like to market in the future. Think of refreshing vegetable cuts, new flavors and new combinations.

I focus on the creative side of things while my partner has a more technical focus. Together, we lead a team of 14 to provide new products and ideas for our 20 factories.

JM: I really love creating new flavors. You start from your base product – in our case, this could be wraps or chips – and create a unique seasoning by building many distinct layers of flavor.

LP: Just like my colleagues, it is my job to come up with new food concepts and products. I focus on salads based on meat, fish and poultry, on fresh food components and ready-made dishes and pasteurized stews. We go back and forth with the client: developing, tasting, applying different technologies to different types of products, revamping, restyling. It’s quite the process!

JL: Coming up with ideas and recipes is also the main part of my job. I focus on dip, salsas and condiments. Lately, I’ve been dabbling with organic products and health-food creations.

Is health a major trend in the Belgian food industry right now?

JL: Oh is it ever. People are becoming more and more aware of what they’re eating, and though that’s empowering, it’s also a major challenge for us. Superfoods aren’t always the tastiest products, so it’s interesting to come up with recipes that are healthy and tasty at the same time.

JM: We’ve been producing corn-based chips for a long time, but now we are seeing a new group of consumers that chooses corn over potato simply for health reasons. Corn chips absorb less grease than their spud counterparts.

BDB: I concur. We are seeing a spectacular rise in vegetable consumption right now. Flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles have become the new normal. This led to a strong increase in our plant-based products, with new cuts and combinations, like vegetable rice and vegetable fries, becoming a significant part of our offering.

Another major trend is the clean and clear label trend. We’ve been producing products with limited or even without E-numbers for several years now. It’s an absolute must for most of our customers. We hardly produce anything else anymore.

CE: The good thing about these stricter demands, though, is that it promotes quality and drives creativity. It urges us to think and to come up with something refreshing. I think Belgium produces a wide array of innovative products. Our supermarkets have so much to offer. It’s wonderful.  

LP: Health is definitely high on the agenda of consumers these days. But so is convenience: being able to make choices and composing healthy meals based on natural meal components is one of the most important trends today. People also want to be able to actually recognize the ingredients that are on the labels. They long for honest, authentic products.

Is it challenging to innovate in such a demanding industry?

CE: It’s definitely hard, but that’s the beauty of it. Innovation and demands urge us to stay flexible and to think on our feet. To consider health, salt, sugar, fat, plant-based products, you name it. Production processes have become increasingly complex, but that also allows us to experiment. When you combine creativity and pristine organization, you get magic.

JL: I think the biggest challenge in operating in such a changing landscape is staying ahead of the competition. You have to move faster and always think two steps ahead.

JM: Indeed. We try to stay ahead by anticipating our customers’ needs. We have a few products up our sleeves that can be adapted to the customer’s taste and piloted quickly. Keeping an eye on the market allows us to have a product ready to taste in just a few weeks. I think that’s something we all have to do in these ever-changing times.  

LP: It’s challenging but we do try hard to get to the trends first. We visit all the relevant trade fairs, conferences, read all the relevant publications and keep an ear to the ground everywhere we go. What are chefs and influencers doing? In our industry, it’s also crucial to look further than what’s happening locally. Travelling never fails to provide fresh inspiration and new ideas.