Penn State Center Offers Innovative Food Product Testing

May 8, 2009

Penn State’s Center for Food Innovation (CFI) now offers corporations a multi-dimensional approach to product testing by adding state-of-the-art focus group monitoring to its menu of services. The April 2009 installation of the Focus Session System (FSS) enhances the research and development and outreach services that CFI’s sensory and food design laboratories have offered since 2004.

According to Peter L. Bordi Jr., Penn State associate professor of hospitality management and CFI director, the new system will allow executives and product development personnel to view focus groups about their products from the comfort of their own offices. “This way, they can get qualitative data instead of just relying on the numbers,” Bordi said. “Not only can they view a focus group live from anywhere, but they can also have some control by typing in specific questions for the moderator to ask.”

Craig Gruneberg, information technology director for Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, said that the FSS was a melding of different ideas. “The closed-circuit TV gear is normally used to monitor convenience stores and gas stations, so the audio and video are recorded for later access,” he explained. “In our case, we view the video and listen to the audio in real time as focus sessions take place. We also incorporated the chat feature so the session host can communicate with the session moderator without interrupting the focus session.”

The sensory lab, located at Penn State’s University Park campus, is already unique from other food testing facilities in that it offers a full-service kitchen for on-site preparation and immediate service. From there, subjects can now move directly to a focus group and offer feedback. “Our technology forms a tremendous bridge from basic sensory work to a total package that leaves companies feeling that their finished product will be the best it can be,” Bordi said.

Sheetz Inc. Research Manager Ieva Grimm said this synergy is what makes CFI especially useful. “Someone can rate something based on taste and then tell us specifically what influenced their decision,” said Grimm. “The chance for our managers to see people’s faces and hear the emotion behind their comments is probably the most exciting aspect of this technology.”

In addition to Sheetz, other major food corporations served by CFI — including Giant, Hershey and Olive Garden — provided funding which enabled the installation of the FSS. Sheetz plans to be the first user of the new technology, and Director of Culinary Development Keith Boston said he looks forward to reaping the benefits of the investment. “The biggest advantages of the new equipment are access and flexibility,” he said. “We can test products on a very fast turnaround, and the data is great.”

Bordi and his staff are confident that the new technology will serve food manufacturers and restaurant chains equally well, and added that he is looking forward to seeing results. “We know that our customers will feel really good about having personal feedback from those who test their foods,” said Bordi. “This is going to make a potentially good product into a great product.”

The Center for Food Innovation is a unique, cooperative research venture between the food industry and academia. Its mission is “to lead industry and University initiatives that create and enhance science and technologies applications while providing the food industry with unbiased world-class information and products developed with the purpose of promoting nutritious foods.”

For more information about CFI and its member companies, visit www.foodinnovationpsu.com.

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Editors: For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.