- Business Series
Outbreak Prompted Kewpie to Develop Long-Lasting Food Products
9:30 JST, January 18, 2021
When the government declared a state of emergency last April, Kaori Fujiwara, a 46-year-old senior executive officer at Kewpie Corp., who had joined the company just a month before, felt intuitively that “a big change not seen since the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake is coming.” She saw that people would cut back on outings, and if they were shopping only once every three days, without a doubt they would start stocking up on food to last three days.
“How we grasp this change will be crucial for success or failure.”
■ Memories of post-quake days
Fujiwara remembered the experience she had at Calbee, Inc., which she had joined shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred. As part of efforts to refrain from using electricity in summer, what was dubbed “taking action in the morning” became popular, with people being active before the temperature rose too high. In the midst of this, Calbee boosted its promotion of a cereal called Frugra and the company saw its sales soar.
To meet consumers’ need to stock up, it is necessary to produce food that is not only tasty but also keeps well for a longer time than conventional items. Having set a goal of releasing in September the “Fresh Stock” series of delicatessen and condiment products that stay fresh for 30 days when kept cold, Kewpie started developing products at a feverish pace.
It had a hard time balancing the need to keep food fresh and to preserve it for a long time. For example, how could they prevent the color and taste of food from deteriorating? Adding artificial substances to curb the growth of microorganisms – to extend the period for which the food could be kept – would make it less tasty. To retain its freshness, the food also had to be processed without too much heat. Would it be all right even if the temperature in the refrigerator changes? Minute adjustments were made time and again. Relevant experiments were repeatedly conducted, even employing the company’s know-how in utilizing vinegar, knowledge it gained in the development of its flagship product of mayonnaise.
The company started test sales of delicatessen items such as chicken stewed in tomato sauce at the end of August, mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area. It announced 11 such products, including dressing that keeps well for seven months at normal room temperature, and has already put some of the products on sale at more than 2,000 stores.
The development of this new line of products is an extension of Kewpie’s own food management techniques. In fact, there should have been opportunities for such products to have been developed earlier. “As someone who joined the company from another, I knew nothing about how things had been up until that point, so I was able to propose such ideas without any preconceived notions. If there had been no coronavirus crisis, I would not have made such an effort,” Fujiwara said.
■ AI-aided virus measures
Imabetsu, Aomori Prefecture, is a town facing the Tsugaru Strait with a population of about 2,500. Last summer a trial was held to test how to balance infection prevention with managing an evacuation site during disasters such as earthquakes or typhoons. It was Jun Kasai, the 56-year-old president of Aomori IT start-up forte Inc., who assumed the pivotal role.
About 100 residents wearing masks lined up in front of a gymnasium. One by one, they approached a tablet at the entrance. On a display set up about 2 meters away and monitored by a staff member, the face of each person was shown with their name and body temperature in succession.
Kasai acquired skills in telecommunication technology at NTT Corp., where he worked for about 25 years, and set up his own company in 2011. His goal was to bring to market technology that uses a camera to read the facial expression of a driver and analyze it with artificial intelligence, thus helping prevent accidents.
“We should definitely be able to produce a product that can deal with the coronavirus,” Kasai thought. In February last year, his company started developing a device combining high-precision facial recognition and a camera that detects body temperature. His company later produced two products, a tablet type and a camera type, and has sold a total of about 2,300 units mainly to medical institutions.
“Using AI will help solve the problems faced by rural communities that have underdeveloped health-care systems,” said Kasai.
■ High-grade acrylic boards
One technology is experiencing a new appreciation of its value.
On an episode of variety program “Odoru! Sanma Goten!!” (Dancing Sanma Palace) broadcast last May, high-grade acrylic partitions were installed. The TV show is produced by a company affiliated with Nippon Television Network Corp. The partitions were installed around host Sanma Akashiya, 65, to prevent infections through respiratory droplets. The partition was lauded by those who appeared on the program, who said, “Its transparency is different from other acrylic boards.” The product also drew attention on social media.
The boards were covered by Mosmite, an antireflective film developed by Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. The transparent film was inspired by the structure of moth’s eyes, which do not reflect light. With bumps at the hundred-nanometer scale on the surface, the film achieves close to zero light reflection, according to the company.
Tetsuya Jigami, 49, who was involved in developing the film for more than 10 years, recalled, “During the production process, we had products that were uneven or the film would quickly get torn.” The product was commercialized about four years ago and has been used on touch panels for car navigation systems, for instance.
Besides being used on TV programs, it is now being used for various purposes including as a protective material for paintings on display at museums. Its sales are growing steadily. “Needs have arisen that we could not have imagined,” said an official at Mitsubishi Chemical. This product developed through steadfast efforts has drawn attention from a range of quarters, which is the first step toward it being used widely.
Japan is a country with manufacturing technologies that the country should be proud of globally. These technologies devised with originality and ingenuity are changing society.
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