Green to Grow On
By Bridget Goldschmidt
Parents' increasing concerns about the environment have led large and small manufacturers of baby food — and the retailers that sell it — to offer more eco-friendly options in the category.
Short of sourcing everything their babies eat at area farmers' markets from local fruit and vegetable growers and dairy and livestock farmers, and then processing it themselves, what can conscientious parents do to ensure that they're purchasing the greenest baby food possible?
Today, moms and dads worried about the environment needn't do so much work to ensure the most environmentally sustainable food products and packaging. Many baby food manufacturers — both major players and relative small fry — have been making green offerings a major part, if not the centerpiece, of their overall business strategies.
For any holdouts who may still believe that environmentally conscious parents represent only a tiny niche within the baby food market, consider this: While the overall category experienced a decline of 4.6 percent in dollar sales in food stores with $2 million and over in sales, excluding supercenters, for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2009, according to The Nielsen Company, some of the only increases came in the natural baby cereal and biscuits and natural junior baby food segments, which saw impressive spikes of 22 percent and 53.2 percent, respectively, driven by new product introductions in response to growing parental interest in pesticide- and additive-free products for their offspring.
And the purchasers of such ethically positioned products as green, natural/organic, humane and Fair Trade tend to be remarkably loyal, despite the economic weather: A recent study from Packaged Facts uncovered "a sizeable number of consumers who will purchase typically more expensive ethical products even in economically challenging times," while research released by Burst Media earlier this year found that shoppers are willing to pay a premium for products they know are made from environmentally friendly, organic materials.
So, with that in mind, and recalling that baby food is one of the big so-called "gateway" categories for consumers to become interested in natural and organic items, it's easy to make the connection between greener baby food products and higher rings at checkout.
That's why green now figures big in the manufacturing and marketing strategies of many baby food manufacturers. "At Gerber, we focus on continuous improvement in agricultural and manufacturing practices to ensure that sustainability is part of our business model," notes Christina Lawrence, head of integrated marketing at Florham Park, N.J.-based Nestlé Infant Nutrition, which owns the iconic Gerber brand. "Since the late 1990s, we have produced and marketed organic products, providing parents with an extra level of confidence in the quality of products through external certification."
In keeping with that commitment, "[t]his year, we are introducing the NatureSelect sub-brand to our Gerber purees to help remind moms of the inherent wholesomeness and strict quality guidelines that are part of all Gerber products," adds Lawrence. "NatureSelect products ... meet Gerber's high quality standards and align with moms' increasing interest in transparency in food production."
Over at Beech-Nut, a company culture embracing sustainability has led to a whole new venue for the manufacture of the venerable brand's trusted product lines. "[In] early 2010, Beech-Nut will open its new $124 million energy-efficient production facility in Amsterdam, N.Y.," says Jim Schneider, CEO of Hero/Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., a division of Swiss consumer packaged goods company Hero Group. "The facility will include state-of-the-art technologies for making all-natural jarred baby foods, baby cereals and shelf-stable, microwavable meals for toddlers in BPA-free plastic containers. When the facility opens, Beech-Nut will submit an application to be certified as an Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified production facility."
Small but Green
In common with the heavy hitters in the category, smaller contenders are playing up their green credentials in a bid for parents' trust — and dollars. "Sustainability is a core pillar of our brand and is delivered in several key areas," explains Gigi Lee Chang, founder of New York-based Plum Organics, a part of The Nest Collective in Emeryville, Calif.
"First, we only use organic ingredients to serve the needs of the mom, and our unique foil and BPA-free plastic packaging enables us to cook our ingredients more gently and keep our products fresh and great-tasting. Second, our new pouch package is considered an eco-alternative in the packaging industry. Our lightweight pouch is actually 10 times lighter than the traditional glass jar and cap, and requires less time and energy to produce. That, combined with our shifting the majority of our production closer to our ingredient vendors, all leads to less transportation in freight, reduced greenhouse gases and lower costs. And while we are continuously striving for a packaging solution that will be 100 percent sustainable by allowing for recycling, right now our primary concern is the quality of the food and safety. Additionally, our outer packaging [is] made from 100 percent recycled materials, [with a] minimum [of] 65 percent post-consumer content, and our BPA-free plastic caps are made from #2 plastic, which is highly recyclable."
Eliminating bisphenol-A (BPA), an organic compound that studies have shown may adversely affect fetal and infant brain development and behavior, was also important to Peter Rabbit Organics, the London-based manufacturer of a fruit pouch line that launched on this side of the pond last year. "Our pouches are BPA-free, which has had a high amount of media attention in the last year or two," observes Ben Ford, managing director for the company, which has U.S. offices in Lake Oswego, Ore. "We only use certified-organic ingredients, and wherever possible, we buy American produce."
A Principled Stand
One of the true stars of the sustainable movement in baby food products, however, is Malibu, Calif.-based Tasty Brand, Inc., maker of the certified-organic Tastybaby and Tasty Brand products lines aimed at infants and toddlers, respectively, which late last year was named Best Baby Food by Greenopia, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based consumer watchdog group that compiles directories of eco-friendly retailers, services and organizations.
"[W]e have been committed, since day one, to making the best possible environmental decisions in our ingredient and packaging sourcing," says Tasty Brand CEO and co-founder Liane Weintraub. "As a result, all of our product lines have strong, intrinsic sustainable qualities. For example, we use biodegradable and recyclable packaging because we firmly believe this makes a difference. Biodegradable materials can be easily broken down by microorganisms into simpler, more stable compounds. Therefore, biodegradable products decompose in the environment quickly and pollute less. Recycling reduces the energy and raw materials needed to create 'virgin' products, [and] reduces the amount of waste produced for disposal."
But as well as improving the state of the current environment, Tasty Brand's green activities also look ahead, Weintraub is quick to point out. "We advocate for sustainable agriculture, the goal of which is to produce crops indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to the environment," she observes. "The principle is that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Among the company's additional pro-environment practices are sourcing its frozen organic baby food from local, sustainable growers; using soy- and vegetable-based inks on its biodegradable packaging; and offering the only infant cereal packaged in eco-friendly resealable bags, instead of the bag-in-a-box or shrink-wrap favored by most manufacturers.
Such efforts are supported by retailers with their own strategies to preserve the environment. "We always encourage our vendors to become greener, in order to align with our corporate initiatives involving sustainability," says Jimmy Faller, category manager for pet and baby at Food Lion, LLC, a division of Belgian retail conglomerate Delhaize Group. The big sellers in the baby and toddler food category at the Salisbury, N.C.-based company, which operates over 1,300 supermarkets under the Food Lion, Bloom, Bottom Dollar Food, Harveys and Reid's banners in 11 Southeast and mid-Atlantic states, are Gerber and the Hain Celestial Group's organic brand, Earth’s Best.
And as the final word on whether greener baby foods really translate to more green at the cash register, all of the companies featured in this article saw strong sales over the past year, in defiance of a worrisome economy.
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NEW PRODUCTS: Toddling Along
Many of the latest items offered by baby food manufacturers are aimed squarely at toddlers — or even older kids.
As the importance of good nutrition in the first years of life becomes ever more apparent through cutting-edge research, baby food manufacturers have been stepping up to the plate — quite literally — with expanded options for those who've grown past the infant stage.
Spurred by strong sales of its initial launch of Gerber Infant Yogurt Blends last fall, Florham Park, N.J.-based Nestlé Infant Nutrition, which owns the Gerber brand, is extending its shelf-stable dairy offerings to include Gerber Graduates Toddler Yogurt Blends Snacks with flavor combinations and nutrition benefits designed specifically for toddlers. According to head of integrated marketing Christina Lawrence, the snacks "are made with low-fat yogurt — offering a good source of calcium — and they have vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as omega-3 fat." The product line joins Gerber's growing portfolio of shelf-stable dairy foods, including Yogurt Blends for Sitters, Graduates Smart Sips beverages and Graduates Yogurt Melts snacks.
Similarly robust sales at Malibu, Calif.-based Tasty Brand, Inc., maker of the certified-organic Tastybaby and Tasty Brand product lines for infants and toddlers, respectively, led the company to introduce two new flavors of Tasty Brand fruit snack, including a Mixed Fruit variety, in early March. Explains Tasty Brand CEO and co-founder Liane Weintraub, "The new flavors are functional snacks, as this is [a] trend on the rise." Other new items are Tasty Brand Organic Superfruit Snacks, which contain antioxidant-rich acai along with the company's unique "superfruit powder," and Organic Sport Fruit Snacks, which offer carbs for energy and electrolytes for optimal hydration before, during and after athletic activity. "So far, interest is extremely high, and we already have pre-orders from retailers who want to carry all three flavors of gummies," noted Weintraub.
Also in early March, Tasty Brand is rolling out yet another product line for "kids ages 2 to 102," as Weintraub puts it: the first ever soft-baked cereal bars featuring vegetables. Abounding in organic fruits and vegetables, and with sweet potatoes and dates baked right into the crust, Organic Cereal Bars offer significant nutritional benefits over other bars in the category, according to the company's co-founder.
In common with Tasty Brand, babies aren't the only focus of Plantation, Fla.-based Greenie Tots, which provides a complete line of kid-friendly meatless meals for children ranging in age from 6 months to 12 years old. Frozen entrees for older eaters include macaroni and cheese, quesadillas, pasta, and chicken-free "chicken" nuggets. As well as being 100 percent meatless and all natural, the microwaveable meals come in environmentally friendly containers.
In the refrigerated yogurt segment, Londonderry, N.H.-based organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm has brought out its YoBaby 3-in-1 Meals in 4-ounce multipacks. "We trust our moms, and while they love our new YoBaby Meals, they wanted these delicious, nutritious three-in-one meals a little smaller," explains Stonyfield Farm president and "CE-Yo" Gary Hirshberg. "The 4-ounce size now means babies and toddlers can easily gobble up the entire cup, while the multipack format offers more convenience for moms on the go." The product line's nutritious combinations of yogurt, fruit and veggie purées enable babies and toddlers to receive three crucial food groups at every meal.
On the private label end of the spectrum, Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, LLC, which already carries three private brand value-priced baby formula items, is "exploring opportunities to introduce several private brand baby food and toddler items," notes Jimmy Faller, category manager for pet and baby at the Delhaize Group division.
HEALTH & WELLNESS: WIC Works Better Than Ever
Baby food is booming at many supermarkets these days, and recent updates to the long-running Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program are a major reason. After a thorough U.S. Department of Agriculture review of foods supported by program, a new set of authorized foods — including baby food — came into effect Oct. 1, 2009. This represents the first major overhaul to WIC in almost three decades.
Confirms Steve Delello, category manager-health and wellness at Tyler, Texas-based Brookshire Grocery Co. (BGC): "During the last six months formula sales are down, and baby food sales are up. The largest contributor to this dynamic is due to changes in … WIC. In October, the WIC allotment of formula was reduced by 10 percent, affecting more than half of the customers buying formula. A decline in birth rates also influenced sales in baby formula. At the same time, WIC began allotting baby food (4-ounce jars), which bolstered baby food sales."
Jimmy Faller, category manager for pet and baby at Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, LLC, a division of Delhaize Group, concurs. "Sales in the infant and toddler category have been strong throughout 2009, and we are continuing to experience strong increases early on in 2010," he says. "We believe that much of this recent growth can be attributed to changes in the WIC program, with baby food being implemented as part of the program."
To accommodate increased customer demand, Food Lion stores "have implemented an off-shelf merchandising display program of WIC baby food items," notes Faller.
Among manufacturers, the famed Beech-Nut brand in particular has taken to heart the initiative's aim to provide nutritious foods for America's youngest and most vulnerable residents. According to Jim Schneider, president and CEO of Hero/Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., a division of Swiss consumer packaged goods company Hero Group: "Beech-Nut has a deep commitment to the health and welfare of our children. Among the ways we demonstrate this commitment is investing in nutrition and in making products available for families in need through the WIC Food Rebate Programs."
Adds Schneider: "WIC contracts for exclusive use of jarred baby foods were recently awarded to Beech-Nut for five New England states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine and Rhode Island. The New England WIC contracts are the first for [a] jarred baby food to be awarded, using the newly authorized foods."
Additionally, similar contracts have been awarded to Beech-Nut for the states of Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, starting later this year.
PROMOTIONS AND MERCHANDISING: Keep it Moving
Despite the fact that as long as people keep reproducing, there will always be a market for infant and toddler foods, manufacturers and retailers are working hard to ensure that their products and stores are top of mind when consumers think of buying something for baby to eat.
"We continue to focus our attention on acquisition and long-term retention, where Nestlé [is] a trusted partner to moms, through a four-year nutrition journey from pre-natal to preschool," explains Christina Lawrence, head of integrated marketing at Florham Park, N.J.-based Nestlé Infant Nutrition, owner of the Gerber brand. "Nestlé is marketing the proprietary 'Start Healthy, Stay Healthy Nutrition System' with six developmental stages that help moms select the right products for their child's development stage. Products suitable for each stage display a color-coded Milestone Symbol for easy identification, reinforced with a Benefit Band providing shoppers nutritional and product information, and visual cues when grouped with products of the same band. [The system] is designed to help parents better understand the transition from one segment to the next, and encourages them to continue shopping the category throughout preschool years."
Gerber is also taking its online features for parents direct to the baby food section. "The new Start Healthy, Stay Healthy Interactive Menu Planner will offer Mom a shopping list that she can bring right to the store," notes Lawrence. "Coming soon, our mobile Start Healthy, Stay Healthy Web site will give moms access to more information and resources at the point of purchase."
For New York-based Plum Organics, part of The Nest Collective in Emeryville, Calif., establishing connections with consumers means traveling to meet them in person. "[T]his coming spring and summer, you'll find our mobile marketing vehicles on the road again," says Plum founder Gigi Lee Chang. "Last summer, we went on a nationwide tour, stopping at our retail partners and at community festivals [and] providing educational materials, coupons and samples of both Plum Organics and our sister brand, Revolution Foods — organic kids' lunchbox snacks. The vehicle was actually a Revolution Foods school bus running cleaning and greener on biodiesel, and because we joined in the tour, it became a co-branded effort. Parents were thrilled because they came for a kids' event and found baby food and toddler options for their little ones, too!"
Malibu, Calif.-based Tasty Brand, Inc., maker of the certified-organic Tastybaby and Tasty Brand product lines for infants and toddlers, respectively, uses coupons to target value-seeking shoppers. "We launched our shelf-stable products with $1-off instant redeem coupons (IRCs) attached, and this seemed to boost sales and encourage budget-conscious consumers to give a new product a try," observes Tasty Brand CEO and co-founder Liane Weintraub. "Redemption rates on all our coupon programs (IRCs, clip-coupons, etc.) have gone up in the past year."
As for other marketing strategies, Tasty Brand is bowing shippers for three flavors of fruit snacks, "which we expect to gain significant placement," notes Weintraub, adding that “[m]any of our retailers have 'baby months' in which baby/toddler items are highlighted and offered on promotion, which are a very good way to get new consumers to learn about and try our products …. [We also] participate in special consumer events, such as HEB's Baby Expos in February, April, June and September, at which we sample products, pass out coupons and educate consumers."
Retailers are similarly spotlighting product to attract customers. "We have used customized floor-ready displays that merchandise well and contain some of the higher-penetration items within the category," says Jimmy Faller, category manager for pet and baby at Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, LLC, a division of Delhaize Group. "These displays enable our associates to easily execute and merchandise for our consumers, as well as complement several of our 'Baby Steps' programs throughout the year." According to Food Lion's Web site, the online Baby Steps program "is the place to find deals on everything you need for your little one. Here you'll find unadvertised MVP Baby Specials, plus exclusive coupons for items from diapers and baby care, to formula and food."
Perhaps the most successful approach, however, is the most basic, encompassing value and easy shopping. "We … know that price and convenience are the two biggest factors in determining where [the baby product purchaser] shops," notes Steve Delello, category manager-health and wellness at Tyler, Texas-based Brookshire Grocery Co. (BGC) of the company's integrated baby sections, which carry nonfood items as well. "We offer everyday low prices on branded items and offer a store-brand equivalent, Top Care, as well, at a greater savings. Moreover, we ensure a good in-stock position to help accommodate convenience."
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