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THE SCIENCE OF TASTE

In a dimly lit conference room, women in white lab coats learn to describe smells and tastes for McCormick & Co. Inc. Nearby, a research chef, working in a fully stocked kitchen that Martha Stewart would envy, whips up a trendy salad dressing that features vanilla, chipotle and sour orange flavors. And in immaculate laboratories just around the corner, chemists work with computers that analyze a flavor down to its molecular building blocks.

It used to be that McCormick was about as traditional as any company could be. Its basic spice products could be found on the shelves of virtually every American kitchen.

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But these days, McCormick is beyond the kitchen and around the world, a major player in the high-tech, high-stakes business of making food taste good.

McCormick is now among the first companies that major restaurant chains, food manufacturers and beverage companies call on for help when they want to concoct new flavors - a tastier potato chip, a tangy dipping sauce, a well-seasoned chicken coating - that keep consumers salivating.

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At the same time, the company is developing new markets in Asia and Europe, producing new lines of exotic spices to market here and abroad.

"There's a high level of likelihood that you're using and consuming one of our products, either at breakfast, lunch or dinner," Hamed Faridi, McCormick's vice president of research and development, said in a recent interview at the company's Technical Innovation Center, a short drive south from its headquarters in Sparks.

"It could be in a snack, in coffee, a cookie, a burger," Faridi said.

For decades, the business of McCormick, which was formed in 1889, was mostly about selling raw ingredients to consumers and food manufacturers.

But as consumers evolved into an eat-and-run lifestyle, McCormick saw an opportunity to sell not only spices, but also ready-made products and flavors - like a breaded chicken coating or a fajita seasoning kit - that combined various low-margin ingredients into a so-called "value-added" product.

Higher profit margins

McCormick markets these products to consumers and industrial food manufacturers, and they typically yield higher profit margins.

Last year, two-thirds of McCormick's $2.3 billion in sales came from such products, while the rest came from raw ingredients, such as oregano and cinnamon.

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"They are the only flavor company out there that can provide anything from a ton of pepper to a compound flavor" for food processors, said George Askew, a senior analyst who covers the food industry for Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. "These guys can do it all."

McCormick also has taken advantage of trends like the growing popularity of ethnic foods and it is reaching out to well-traveled consumers who have been exposed to and now crave bold and exotic flavors, food industry experts said.

Even your dog might be eating a McCormick-flavored meal. The company develops "flavor systems" for pet food manufacturers that appeal to pets, but won't leave an unpleasant odor.

"The ideal flavor for a dog is rotting trash," said Marianne H. Gillette, a product development director with McCormick. "But no owner would buy that."

McCormick has had research and development capabilities for more than 50 years, but the company has pushed hard in recent years to expand its investment in future business. Research and development spending has nearly doubled to $31.4 million last year, from $16.1 million in 1997.

The investment already appears to be paying off. McCormick boasted in its 2002 annual report that new products launched during the past three years accounted for 10 percent of its annual sales last year.

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"New products are absolutely critical to food companies and restaurant chains," said Askew, the Legg Mason analyst.

At the Hunt Valley center, McCormick keeps 200 chemists, flavorists, research chefs and product engineers racing toward the goal of new products. The center is part of a network of 22 product development branches that employ 350 people in 14 countries around the world.

Variety of tasks

The center's experts - many of whom don white lab coats, hair nets and chef's outfits for their jobs - do everything from create new recipes in a kitchen, to testing, analyzing and synthesizing natural flavors.

In one area of the three-story building on Wight Avenue, McCormick's research chefs - who follow the latest food trends - work side-by-side with their clients to craft new seasonings, coatings and dressings in a state-of-the art culinary center built in 2000.

The center - a veritable playground for chefs - features a wall rack of utensils, a wide island counter-top and major appliances on wheels.

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"We have all the tools we need to do our job," said Steve Logan, a senior scientist and research chef.

Down the hall is McCormick's new sensory center, a state-of-the-art wing that opened last year. Here, "descriptive flavor panelists" and consumer panelists sit in air-controlled testing rooms each week. Their analyses help McCormick and its clients refine new products.

One testing room has a one-way mirror, so that industrial clients can observe the responses of consumers or descriptive panelists. Another is equipped with video cameras that can broadcast over the Internet, so McCormick's clients can watch from their desktop computers.

The descriptive flavor panelists - a carefully selected group of people chosen for their sensory acuity - are trained by McCormick to describe tastes and smells.

'Analytic instruments'

"They're used as analytical instruments," said Terry Work, manager of the sensory science group. "They're not going to tell you if they like a product. That's for our consumer panel to do."

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And consumer testing can make, break, or totally reshape, a product.

McCormick draws from a database of 5,000 consumers in the Baltimore metropolitan area when it wants to invite people to its center for a taste-testing session, or conduct an automated interview over the phone.

The company also is able to survey a critical market demographic - children - by offering donations to organizations that can bring them in by the minivan-load, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Parent-Teacher Associations and soccer teams.

"We'll call the soccer Mom and say, 'We've got a test: Can you bring us 50 8-year-old boys?' " said McCormick's Gillette. McCormick would donate around $20 a child to the organization, she said.

Another approach is to work with schools. McCormick donates money to public and private schools in exchange for sending its experts in to observe children's eating habits or to test a new product during lunch time, Gillette said.

With the help of feedback from children, McCormick is currently developing a new sauce for dipping chicken tenders - a hot food item for children in the 8-to-12 age group, Gillette said.

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"We want to develop a sauce that kids like as much as ketchup," Gillette said. "We've developed 15 different sauces [for this project] and the one that's leading is a barbecue sauce."

On the short end, McCormick has developed and rolled out a new product in two months. But a more typical time frame is 18 months to two years, Gillette said.

The company's chemists and analysts also do extensive research - using such high-tech gadgetry as a gas chromatography mass spectrometer - that can detect the different molecules that make up an aroma.

Imitation chicken flavor

McCormick's scientists, for example, know how to make something taste and smell like chicken when it is not chicken.

"We've identified the components of taking a piece of chicken and cooking it," said Greg Yep, McCormick's manager of process flavor design and development. "We can develop a chicken flavor that doesn't have any meat in it at all."

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One key research focus is figuring out ways to make low-fat products taste better.

"There are hundreds of low-fat products on the market, and there was a high level of enthusiasm [for them] in the late '80s and '90s that leveled off, probably because people realized that taste is not there," said Faridi, McCormick's head of research and development.

Faridi said McCormick is busy developing the "next generation" of flavors for low-fat foods that "take fat out, put flavor in."

This kind of culinary and scientific prowess has elevated McCormick into a company that top food makers increasingly turn to for help and innovation, said John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

McCormick is "a very highly respected business," said Stanton. "If you're coming out with a new flavored chicken, believe me, McCormick is at the top of everyone's list [to help develop a new product].

"It's not the winner all the time, but they're at the top of the list to be a partner in helping people come out with new products and new tastes," he said.

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If innovation is a good thing, it also requires a good measure of secrecy and confidentiality.

McCormick is tight-lipped when it comes to talking about clients, products and processes. Company officials said that McCormick's clients include 160 of the top 200 food companies and restaurant chains, but they insisted on protecting their confidentiality.

Keeping trade secrets also is part of the routine. McCormick holds 50 patents, mostly related to food manufacturing processes, and often struggles with the decision to patent a new development or keep it as another secret.

Took legal action

The level of secrecy and confidentiality extends to employees who work and have access to client information. They must sign confidentiality agreements, and McCormick has pursued legal action against employees who've broken their agreements, Gillette said.

McCormick also often works with two or more companies that compete directly against each other - a potential dilemma when it comes to protecting trade secrets.

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But McCormick officials deal with it by never letting employees in their product development, sensory and culinary departments work on projects for companies that compete against each other.

"The same person doesn't work with competing customers; they don't ever have access to those formulas," said Gillette. "These companies wouldn't work with us [if there was an overlap] ... . Information is highly compartmentalized. We're not going to cut off our nose to spite our face."

Despite its recent growth, McCormick still has to keep an eye out for other niche competitors, as well as one of the heavyweights in the flavoring field, New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances Inc.

The majority of IFF's $1.8 billion in revenue is derived from sales to the perfume industry, but food flavoring products have grown to account for 45 percent of sales.

IFF's spending on research and development topped $144 million last year - more than four times McCormick's spending - and that company expects to spend roughly $160 million this year, according to its annual report.

"There's tremendous competition that we didn't have 30 years ago," said Faridi, McCormick's research head. "You need to do a lot more science, a lot more research and development."

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But, adds Faridi, "At the end of the day, companies come to us for great taste."


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