Musings from IFT 2019

Last week I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans, a phenomenal destination, for the 2019 IFT show. Disclosure: I did not take in any of the scientific sessions, and heard that at least a few of them were exceptional, including presentations on microbiome science. What I did do was spend two days on the show floor, and despite the New Orleans event being so much smaller than the ones in Chicago, those days were worthwhile.

First, and maybe it had something to do with the change of venue, but execs were in the house. Senior management, even global senior leadership, were well represented at large and small players, which made dialogue impactful and substantive discussions could be advanced. The last few years in Chicago it seemed as though the senior folks were giving it a pass, and even if they did attend, they were rarely on floor or were gone after one day. Score one for NOLA.

My next observation has to do with international trade pressures and uncertainty. I spoke with more than one ‘intermediate’ who stated that they had drastically altered their business model to mitigate business risk, especially with China-sourced ingredients. In fact, these veteran entrepreneurs were now moving exclusively to a commission sales model, not being able to afford the higher physical acquisition and importation costs, especially with additional tariffs pending. Some companies got ahead of the crisis, bringing in extra inventory pre-tariffs. For materials in transit though, the potential of a sudden tariff shift eliminating all profit and even having the transaction turn to a loss is something many businesses have refused to bear, especially if we’re talking commodities at small margins. On a broader scale, this could lead to a more volatile, speculative market, shortages, and companies ultimately exiting markets leading to reduced competition.

On the show floor itself, we saw of course, the proliferation of plant-based alternative ingredients and the prevailing themes of clean-label, transparency and sustainability, against a backdrop of innovative spices, flavors and sweet solutions. Lest one think that IFT would be absent the darling of the moment, CBD, China-based sweetener company Layn was very high profile, as reported in FoodNavigator-USA, with their investment in a US CBD operation.

On the subject of CBD, again the behind the scenes conversation in the wake of the FDA’s cannabis and hemp day-long workshop May 31st, and other backroom and boardroom chat is that most companies and industry as a whole are woefully unprepared for the eventuality of hemp-based CBD as a consumer product, whether that be in food, beverage or dietary supplement marketplaces. Even if some legal path to market is a certainty, there are few signs that the industry is anywhere close to ready to make a compelling case for the responsible marketing of properly produced, safe and efficacious products. It is also not clear whether all the right folks are getting into the same room to leverage collective expertise and connections.

IFT is always such a foil to the health products centric SupplySide, Vitafoods, and even Engredea, and the mix of tech, biotech, hard-core function and formulation focus makes it a totally different experience. Having a fat and protein conversation at IFT is truly a unique beast.

Next up NBJ…