Culinology® Magazine: Tyson Foods' Leader of the Class

It is a great time to be in the protein business. Meat consumption is at an all-time high. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts Americans will eat a record amount of poultry and other types of meat this year — on average 222.2 pounds 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, Ark.-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,” Ms. Mann said. “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.

Poultry pundit

Ms. 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 University 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 comprised of 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 said. “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.”

Ms. 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 said. She said the main trend in her ­ field is the continued desire for clean-label foods.

She enjoys 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 said. “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 said. “No day is the same for me, but I do attend a lot of product cuttings, of course, and meetings.”

Ms. Mann remains an active dietitian but realized that her internship promoted her to choose a work setting other than a hospital. “I think I found my perfect ‑t with Tyson where I can use my nutrition background to help develop products that meet specific nutritional requirements,” she said. “My background gives me a unique perspective in R&D that others may not have.”

Small-town roots

Ms. 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 Certi­ed Culinary Scientist (CCS) certi­cation through the RCA,” she said. “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.”

Ms. Mann, who grew up in a small town in northern Louisiana near the Arkansas border, said the food profession was a very natural ­t 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 said. “I grew up being active in 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America), 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.”

It is no surprise her favorite foods are bone in fried chicken and crawfi­sh. “I ate a lot of chicken, pork and shrimp growing up, but top of the list is still craw­fish boiled with the right amount of spices and seasonings,” she said.

Ms. 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 said, "and I hit a hole-in-one my fi­rst year of playing in a golf tournament."

They have two children. “My son always helps me in the kitchen,” she said, “but my daughter inherited my love of science and math.

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