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Food Research & Technical Innovation

Food retailers are increasingly challenged in areas such product safety, integrity and product availability balanced against waste, packaging usage and recyclability as well as health and wellbeing. For M&S it goes without saying that we deliver all of these at the same time without compromise on the quality of our products.

In a more complex and competitive world we need to continue to deliver science-led innovation not only to delight our customers through our products and services, but to help us tackle the issues that face us. 

Commitments and targets
We want to be an international multi-channel retailer that leads on sustainability in our sector.

Our goal is to delight and excite our customers with high quality, good value products. To achieve this we are committed to innovate and continually improve the way we do things right across our business and supply chain.

Approach
Our business is managed in line with our core values of Inspiration, Innovation, Integrity and In Touch. These values influence how we behave and they run through everything we do - they make the M&S difference: 'making every moment special' through the products and services we offer our customers in the UK and internationally. It is absolutely essential we foster an environment where innovation and entrepreneurial activities thrive.

This approach is not new. Since we opened our first penny bazaar in Leeds 130 years ago, quality and innovation remain the steering force behind our business and they run through everything we do. As a pioneer in food technology we’ve always used scientific developments to create products that have change the daily lives of our customers. In addition, we have a well-established history of firsts in food from ready meals to being the first retailer to use only free range egg.

In a competitive marketplace, our position as a food specialist sets us apart from our rivals. We have achieved this through our constantly evolving ranges, our quality and our innovation. 

Our key technical innovation themes to help us meet the future requirements of the food business are summarised as follows:

  • Identify improved business opportunities in the market to ensure that we continue to offer special and different products whether that be through new varieties or inspiration packaging
  • Lead the industry on product safety and integrity and be at the forefront of new and emerging issues that may affect our food brand
  • Continue to drive a health and wellbeing agenda across food whether that be through new innovative healthy food and ingredients, improving diet through enrichment of our foods or just making it easier for our customers to follow a healthy diet
  • Find solutions to protect our business from environmental, social and economic challenges that may impact our suppliers and supply chain resilience

Here is a summary of some of our more recent food innovations:

Campylobacter
Our core business values influence how we behave and run through everything we do. Integrity is one of these values –we always strive to do the right thing.

For example, we have led the industry in reducing campylobacter in our poultry, a stance which has been endorsed by the Food Standards Agency. We want to eradicate incidences of campylobacter and have developed a five point plan to help us to do this. 

The measures, which have been in place for the majority of M&S chickens sold since the end of September 2014, include even clearer front-of-pack labelling and double bagging whole chickens so they can be placed straight into the oven without the need to unwrap and handle the chicken. We’re also offering bonuses to farmers who produce campylobacter free farms and innovative new safety technology in place on the production line.

Healthier food ranges
Specific to M&S, we’ve launched product ranges aimed at customers who are looking to purchase healthy and nutritious food.

Better For You Milk
We worked with the University of Reading and our suppliers to explore whether it was possible to feed dairy cows a natural diet that would deliver milk with less saturated fat, improve cow health and welfare and offer the same taste and high quality. The result was our Better For You Milk where saturated fat was reduced by at least 6%, cow fertility increased, palm oil was removed and consumer research even found that the milk tasted creamier. 

Vitamin D added to bread
Another example is the recent addition of vitamin D to all of our bread. Vitamin D is well recognised for its role in bone health. However, as there are only a few food sources of vitamin D in our diet, it’s expected that we get the majority of vitamin D from sunlight. As a result, we worked with an ingredients supplier to enable our breads and bread rolls to be made with a yeast that naturally produces vitamin D. Each portion is a source of vitamin D, providing at least 15% of your daily requirement. Find out more about vitamin D in the diet.  

Vacuum packing of fresh meat cuts
We’ve developed a central Plan A Innovation Fund to support innovative initiatives that are too risky or too long term for business unit expenditure; ideas that cut across the business or reside in areas of the business that have not traditionally run innovation programmes before.

Our central innovation fund has helped us overcome these challenges. It’s supported over 70 projects so far. Some of these projects have and will fail (the inevitable quid pro quo of innovation) but others are already paying back way above our initial investment.

For example, the innovation fund was used to help test vacuum packing of fresh meat cuts. This led to a 75% reduction in packaging and delivered fresher, better quality products for our customers. It also boosted sales, cut store waste and reduced customer complaints.

Protein content and yield in UK pulses
In 2012, a collaborative project began to investigate the relationship between protein content and yield in UK pulses. The project was a joint initiative funded by industry partners: Wherry & Sons, IDna Genetics Ltd, William Thompson (York) Ltd, Marks & Spencer and PGRO working with The John Innes Centre (JIC), Fera Science Limited and Aberystwyth University; and co-funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation Agency in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Defra.  The project was targeted to look at maximising the benefits from UK pulses as part of Innovate UK’s sustainable protein production competition.

UK animal feeds are reliant upon soy imports, much of which is produced in South America. As global demand increases, large areas of primary rainforest and grassland are cleared to make way for soy plantations. Soy is an important ingredient in livestock feeds due to its lower price and ability to satisfy the dietary requirements of animals.

If a more reliable UK supply could be guaranteed, animal producers would be more confident in changing to pea and faba bean protein sources and nutritionists could develop their knowledge base in order to increase levels included in feed. Legume growers need confidence that a market will be available at a price that generates profit, and that production systems are efficient, sustainable, and will result in a quality product meeting customer demands.

This research project aimed to:

  • Identify new varieties of peas that have improved feed qualities
  • Conduct animal feed trials (pig & poultry) to assess whether a diet with higher pea inclusion has any positive or negative effects upon the animals
  • Review and evaluate methods of protein measurement
  • Translate the same methods to faba bean
The research project results show promise for the expansion of home grown pulses for use in UK and EU animal feeds.

Working with others
We can’t innovate on our own and working with others is essential if we are going to continue to find solutions to drive a long term stretching innovation pipeline. 

We have a number of great and long-standing partnerships such as with universities, research funders, and ingredient and technology companies. But we are always open to new science partnerships and would welcome any ideas on technology/science based innovations that support our innovation themes. You can share your views with us at foodtechinnovation@marks-and-spencer.com.

In 2015, we also launched a Plan A Challenges website which summarises our sustainability related challenges. Find out more about our Plan A challenges.