Being on Livermore's NFL team has its perks
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Do you want to be paid to have your cake -- say what you think about it -- and eat it too?
Do you want to boast: "I worked for the NFL," and have it be true?
On a recent morning, about 20 Bay Area residents spent about 30 minutes at the National Food Lab (NFL). They were sipping what Christie Hoyer, the lab's Consumer Research Division manager guardedly calls a "juice beverage." They followed it up by noshing on mysteriously-labeled "dinner rolls."
The room was bland and silent; the amateur "tasters," seated at cubicles, typed their response to the tastings on computers. There's a million-dollar -- maybe more -- reason for the controlled environment and secrecy: national clients like Starbucks and General Mills hire the food consulting and testing firm for insights into safety, quality and to uncover the "foodie grail" for bringing successful products to the marketplace.
The food testing industry is enormous, but NFL's President and COO Kevin Waters is hard-pressed to name the nearly 40-year old company's direct competitor.
"I can't think of one other lab that offers the business units we offer," he said.
"We have breadth and depth most others don't: experts who have been in the industry for 30 years, cutting-edge technology, and a consumer research division staffed at the highest level of food science," Hoyer said.
It's also nearly impossible to find a food category or brand the NFL has not assisted with. In 2011, the company served more than 600 clients. With 25,000 to 40,000 products in an average supermarket, 600 might not sound like much. But understand that any one of those clients might have 100 products, and their products-tested numbers rise exponentially.
"Tobacco!" Waters announces, jubilant to have thought of a product category they do not test. "Firms that do that need certain equipment. Philosophically, it's a category we purposely (avoid)."
The lab uses legions of amateur testers, brought in to test the likes of the "juice beverage" sampled that morning at the lab.
But 40 professional panelists, selected from initial pools of 150 applicants, are used too. They are chosen for their sensory acuity, ability to verbalize, absence of color blindness, sensitivity to the sweet and bitter levels in food and the all-important "gets along well with others" factor.
"The cream tends to rise through the crop," Hoyer says, slightly twisting a cliché to convey the lance-like methodology NFL applies to selection of its professional panelists. "They are akin to an instrument. We don't ask them if they like a product. We ask for terms; specific language for describing appearance, flavor, aroma."
NFL's stringent approach is particularly evident in its biochemical and chemistry labs. A $300,000 Signature Screen detects and scales 250 to 300 compounds, including pesticides, heavy metals, residual dyes and potential food contaminants. A new high-pressure processing unit puts NFL at the shelf-stable front edge by eliminating the need for heat-treated bacterial inactivation or refrigeration. Last year's accreditation by the Organization for Standardization certifies their operational procedures and permits 24 different microbiological and chemical tests to be performed.
Providing client feedback is no less rigorous. Metrics are cross-tested, customized and presented in a variety of graphics. When a client's desired objectives include a broader geographic representation, results from affiliate testing sites across the country are gathered and integrated.
Although NFL is not a trend house, or typically responsible for delivering test results to the public or media, Waters is careful to ensure that what he says is extended to the Internet in a truthful manner.
"We provide input into trends like eating behaviors, health and wellness, sucrose impact on satiety, but we talk to clients. We aren't (often) broadcasting to the general public."
Instead, they are listening. NFL's consumer research program includes focus groups, online research, on-location and in-home use tests and consumer co-creation sessions.
"We're always looking for new tasters," Hoyer says. "It's fun, interesting and they get paid to eat -- unlike our (professional) testers, who spit it out."
A simple, nine-point scale is used to grade a product's appearance -- aroma, taste and expectation-matching properties. Many testers come back again and again, like Livermore resident Debbie Hays.
"I get to experience new food. If someone is going to buy it, it should be there because of my taste, my opinion -- not a factory taste," she says.
Cynthia Bank, of Livermore, agrees, saying, "I'm super-picky, so it's nice someone wants your opinion -- and you get paid for it!"
Most test sessions last 30 to 50 minutes and pay $25. Signing up is as easy as clicking on "Taste Testing" on NFL's home page and answering a few questions about age and availability.