IT is a great time to be in the protein business. Meat consumption is at an all-time high. In fact, the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) predicts Americans will eat a record amount of poultry and other types of meat this year – on average 222.2 lbs. per person. That will surpass the record previously set in 2004.
And if there’s anyone who knows about protein’s popularity, it’s Niki Mann, associate director of R&D for Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc.
“At Tyson, we raise the world’s expectations for what proteins can do for everybody. We use our scale to make a global impact,” Mann says. “We want to use this scale to make the food people want to eat accessible and affordable.”
Tyson Foods is a recognized leader in protein with brands including Tyson, Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm and Ball Park, to name a few. The company posted annual sales last year of $38.26 billion and produces mostly chicken, beef, pork and prepared foods.
Mann, who has worked at Tyson Foods for 13 years, certainly has the right background for her position at the company. She knows chicken. She has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in poultry science from the Univ. of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She also has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and is a registered dietitian.
Her team at the Tyson Foods’ Discovery Center in Springdale – she calls it “our hub of innovation for product development” – is home to four food scientists she manages and other personnel who report to her on specific projects. The Discovery Center also houses 19 kitchens, an office area and a USDA-inspected pilot plant.
“My team has worked on all proteins throughout the years, but most recently our focus has been only on chicken,” she says. “We develop products, primarily frozen, for students in schools throughout the US and for all types of commercial chain restaurants – anywhere from larger chain accounts and mid-level to smaller local and regional US foodservice chains.”
Mann oversees product development where her staff discusses their lab work with her, and they all interact internally with Tyson Foods’ sales and marketing departments and with external customers. “It depends on the customer segment you work in when new products get launched at Tyson Foods, but we introduce new items throughout the year, depending on customer need,” she says. She says the main trend in her field is the continued desire for clean-label foods.
She relishes being a female mentor and leader in her field because traditionally it has been more male-dominated, although younger women are entering today in larger numbers, she says. “I feel my major job responsibility is to support my team members each day – to make sure they have what they need to be successful not only developing products, but also in their careers, all the while making sure they are safe while doing it,” she says. “No day is the same for me, but I do attend a lot of product cuttings, of course, and meetings.”
Mann remains an active dietitian but realized that her internship prompted her to choose a work setting other than a hospital. “I think I found my perfect fit with Tyson where I can use my nutrition background to help develop products that meet specific nutritional requirements,” she says. “My background gives me a unique perspective in R&D that others may not have.”
Mann is a member of the Research Chefs Association (RCA) Northwest Arkansas Regional committee, where she helps organize education and cultural events each year. She became involved with the RCA through Tyson Foods, a longtime supporter of the association.
“I also received my Certified Culinary Scientist (CCS) certification through the RCA,” she says. “Many of our Tyson team members in Springdale have science backgrounds and less experience with the culinary side of things, so the RCA helps us learn more about the culinary branch that allows us to speak the same language as the chefs we have as customers.”
Mann, who grew up in a small town in northern Louisiana near the Arkansas border, says the food profession was a very natural fit for her. “Agriculture has always been in my life... With my father being an agriculture teacher, we were able to show lambs in the local and state fairs,” she says. “I grew up being active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA), and participated in a lot of cooking contests. I learned a lot about cooking, but also some of the science and history behind certain foods.”
Mann’s husband also works for Tyson Foods in the transportation department. For fun, she loves to golf and read mystery novels. “I started playing golf with my husband the year we met,” she says, “and I hit a hole-in-one my first year of playing in a golf tournament.”
Crafting kid food
Tyson Foods’ new product items for students include varieties that one might not necessarily associate with children. “We have launched some items in the last couple of years with great on-trend flavors like Korean barbecue, Thai lemongrass, Nashville hot and waffle flavor in the K-12 segment,” Mann says. “Kids are now much more accepting of something new and also spicy. Their taste buds are much more developed than one might assume.”
Mann works with her product development team to create chicken products for schools for students in grades K-12. “There are nutritional requirements that are regulated by the USDA unique to these customers,” she explains.
By school year 2018/2019, all of Tyson Foods’ commodity chicken items will meet “no artificial ingredients” and “chickens raised with no antibiotics ever” claims. “This is above and beyond what the USDA requires for school meals,” Mann says, “but this shows our commitment in being the leader in product development for our K-12 customers.”
Mann says a honey sriracha boneless chicken wing has been one of her team’s most successful new products. “This was one of our first items that went beyond the more typical breaded product,” she says. “We also have had a lot of success in schools with hand-held items, such as popcorn chicken or chicken fries, and nuggets remain a staple,” she says, noting that kids don’t want items that need to be cut with a fork. “Kids want to talk and eat at the same time.”