NFPA lessons in shared experiments – National Food Processors Association

Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell

NFPA offers an oasis of support and services to an industry otherwise driven by fierce competition.

Joint ventures, strategic synergies, outsourcing, maximizing resources. Such buzzwords represent a new business culture where, in order to stay competitive, companies look beyond their own assets to seek strategic alliances.

Against this backdrop, the National Food Processors Assoc. (NFPA), Washington, D.C., stands as a testimony to the value of cooperative technical alliances. The NFPA and its four subsidiaries serve the food manufacturing industry by addressing a variety of issues, including processing, food safety, regulations and new product development.

Long-Term Solutions

Founded in 1907, the National Canners Assoc. was the food industry’s first national organization. In 1978, to reflect its membership’s increased diversity, it was renamed the National Foods Processors Assoc. [The industry’s changing nature also was reflected in trade publications. That same year, Prepared Foods’ forerunner similarly changed its name from Canner/Packer to Processed Prepared Foods.]

Virtually every major food company as well as many smaller entrepreneurial processors are NFPA members. Some of the benefits they receive are as follows:

* Legislative assistance. NFPA works to ensure that laws and regulations impacting the food industry are based on sound science. One example of how NFPA’s extensive technical databases support regulatory efforts is seen in FDA’s recent approval of chlorine dioxide as a sanitizer for fresh cut produce to be further processed. “NFPA was the industry’s petitioner on this issue,” says Rhona Applebaum, Ph.D., NFPA’s executive vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.

* Crisis management. NFPA’s crisis management team strives to minimize the impact of withdrawals, recalls and tampering incidents. A Claims Division keeps a comprehensive database of consumer complaints and assists with claim validity, coordinates expert testimony and provides basic financial support.

* Industry information. Through avenues such as educational events, publications, an annual convention and other networking opportunities, NFPA highlights industry trends and provides critical information on issues that will impact a food company’s business.

* Lab facilities. Among the most impressive NFPA resources are its laboratory facilities that are, in some cases, also shared by NFPA’s for-profit subsidiaries. (See sidebar.) The association maintains three technical facilities located in Washington, D.C., Seattle and Dublin, Calif.

A Focus on Dublin

The Dublin, Calif., facility houses the Center for Technical Assistance, a resource for NFPA members, and the National Food Laboratory Inc. (NFL), an NFPA for-profit subsidiary.

“One of the major activities of the Center for Technical Assistance is to help the industry evaluate processing equipment, primarily in terms of looking at their ability to meet U.S. safety requirements,” says Senior Director Henry Chin.

“We also troubleshoot for members when they have spoilage issues or need help with a crisis. We analyze products and help interpret results. Typically we get a call from a member – somehow it always seems to be late on a Friday or Saturday – saying they have a problem,” says Chin. Product samples are sent to the Center, and staff employees may travel to the plant site to review equipment, procedures and other factors to help determine whether the problem is an isolated case or more systematic.

“If there truly is a problem, then we recruit staff from our D.C. office, specifically regulatory and communications experts, since dealing with a crisis uses essentially a three-pronged approach involving experts skilled in science, regulatory policy, and communications,” says Chin.

NFPA possesses sophisticated analytical and pilot plant facilities. Available equipment includes a scanning electron microscope, gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers, a graphite furnace atomic absorption unit, and a riboprinter. Additional resources include computer-controlled retorts with custom processing software, pouch and flexible packaging retorts, and a pilot plant for products and process development studies. “It’s an impressive collection of equipment,” says Applebaum.

Product Development Assists

“The mechanisms for contracting for a project is the same for both NFPA members and non-members,” says Kevin Buck, NFL president. “When a client comes to us with a problem or opportunity, we discuss it and then give them a proposal that reiterates our understanding of the project and what NFL’s deliverables will be. We outline the project’s protocol, identify a project leader and propose a fixed fee. The fee is based on what is competitive in the marketplace and on the value of the work that we can provide our client,” Buck adds. There may be more discussion and a new proposal so that the project stays within the client’s budget.

NFL projects can be limited in scope, such as the development of a prototype formulation, or more involved, such as commercial scale-up in the pilot plant and consumer evaluations involving the sensory group. “We even qualify co-packers,” says Buck.

“We also handle things such as formulation cost reductions and alternative ingredient evaluations. Also, many of our clients work for packaging companies,” says Buck. Since packaging materials are regulated as an indirect food additive, FDA guidelines and approvals must be obtained for new products. “We evaluate both the chemical and sensory aspects of new packaging material using appropriate test protocol,” Buck adds.

“I can’t give examples of specific R&D projects, however it is fairly well known that California wine coolers were ‘born’ at the NFL,” says Buck. Much of NFL’s expertise lies in other beverages – from juices to smoothies to sports drinks. The technical challenge with these products often involves fortifying them with as many nutritional ingredients as the processor sees fit, along with various flavor combinations, yet still have the product look and taste good and remain stable throughout its shelf life, says Buck.

“We perform accelerated shelf life tests but also can use models to track product performance. Our database on hundreds of products we’ve done in the past allows us to predict the mode and time of failure for many products,” Buck adds.

Other areas of expertise include fruit and vegetable products, soups and sauces. “We tend to stick to areas of our expertise,” says Buck. “This means we can say to clients, ‘watch out for these 15 things with this item.'”

“It’s also a matter of record that NFL was a key player in helping Odwalla through a difficult period. They’re a very responsible company with a good product. It was noticeable about how rapidly they responded to a difficult situation,” says Buck.

The NFPA and NFL will play as large a role in the food industry’s future as it has in the past.

“One of our biggest challenges in the next 10 years will be to determine whether traditional testing methods are adequate to evaluate the food safety of new processes, such as with high pressure, ohmic heating or UV light,” says Chin.

The industry is striving to incorporate higher degrees of freshness in refrigerated or shelf-stable products, says Buck. “NFPA’s technical horsepower is huge and the NFL benefits from their work with new processes. They know what really works versus the hype. The NFL, in turn, can function as a source of market feedback for NFPA,” he adds.

Information travels so fast, and it’s so often inaccurate, that consumers are left with the impression that food safety issues are becoming more serious, says Buck. However, “The food we have in the US is the safest on the planet,” he says. And with their help, it may also be some of the best tasting.

RELATED ARTICLE: NFPA Structure and Function

NFPA’s organizational structure may not be readily obvious to the inexperienced. NFPA’s headquarters are in Washington, D.C. It has four wholly owned subsidiaries and three scientific centers. “From NFPA’s perspective, they perform different roles,” says Henry Chin, senior director of the Center for Technical Assistance. The labs and their focus are as follows:

* Dublin, Calif. The physical facility contains two companies, says Buck: The for-profit NFL, which is responsible for the facility’s operation, and the Center for Technical Assistance, a smaller NFPA contingent that assists members with technical issues, recalls, and so on. For example, support is available for process development efforts including process authority assistance on thermally and aseptically processed products, food preservation and safety topics, food packaging consulting and seal and seam integrity examination services.

* Washington, D.C. The Center for the Development of Research/Policy and New Technologies provides the technical support that serves as the foundation for food industry public policy development and for members’ research initiatives.

* Seattle. The Center for Northwest Seafood focuses on services for its seafood processing members. Services include participation in regulatory activities directly impacting the seafood industry, providing a seafood inspection facility, and technical assistance in a number of areas.


Membership: 500 companies (350 food manufacturers with 22,000 member processing facilities)

Laboratories: Three

Technical staff: 80+ food scientist and technical and regulatory experts, including 17 Ph.D.s

Monthly publication: NFPA Journal

Key spokespeople: John Cady, President and Chief Executive Officer; Rhona Applebaum, Executive V.P. for Scientific and Regulatory Affairs; Kelly Johnston, Executive V.P. for Government Affairs and Communications

Contact Information: NFPA: Ph: 202/639-5900, Fax: 202/639-5932, E-mail:,


The National Food Laboratory Inc.: Ph: 925/828-1440, Fax: 925/833-8795, E-mail:

COPYRIGHT 1999 Cahners Publishing Company

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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