The word innovation is much overused in the food industry. A few years ago, when I was editing a food ingredients magazine, a Spanish company contacted me to talk about their innovations.

As we talked, it emerged that the products they were referring to had entered the market three or four years previously, were already well established, and far from unique. When I put it to them that these were not really innovations, they replied: “They are for us!”

I always feel a little suspicious now when claims of innovation are made. It seems to be too easy, and too rarely backed up, and the word’s over-use can only result in obscuring what is really innovative in the industry.

A recent report from Mintel would suggest that the food and drink industry is less innovative than it might like to portray itself.

Looking at the US, Mintel found that food and drink product launches declined by nearly 30% last year. The fall is the most dramatic recorded by the company and is attributed to both the weak economy and saturation, the latter suggesting an inability to develop genuinely new products.

Despite this declining trend, there are some categories and claims that found a hidden niche in which to excel. Ethical and environmental claims increased from 9% of all product launches in 2008 to 17% in 2009. Specifically in this category, the environmentally friendly packaging claim nearly tripled from 3% of all products launched in 2008 to 9% in 2009.

Simply claiming innovation is no magic bullet, while actually innovating can be. A real and worthwhile innovation, if properly marketed, can bring about great things. But using the word simply because everybody else does and because it is an easy choice, betrays a lack of imagination that no individual company, or industry, can afford if it wants to prosper.

In January, US poultry company Townsend Specialty Foods opened an “Innovation Center”. Yes, many have already been opened and it is too early to judge what its results will be, but its aim is that it will draw on internal and external expertise, combining the knowledge of the R&D teams, technical sales and consulting chefs with collaborative input from suppliers and customers. If what comes out of this innovation centre is genuinely innovative, then it is an initiative that should be welcomed.

In the UK, feed supplier ABN is currently offering GBP1,000 in prize money for the winner of a new competition aimed at developing marketing ideas for pig and poultry products.

ABN commercial director Angela Booth explained that the competition, aimed at the under-35s, would provide a new and unique opportunity for young people from outside and within the industry to put forward exciting and innovative marketing concepts for British pig or poultry food products. She continued that the company was looking for fresh ideas that could add value.

It is this last point that is key. In its review of the US market last year, Mintel notes that product launches with an economy claim increased by 72%. As the upturn in the global economy takes hold and consumers become more willing to spend, wouldn’t it be better to offer something that is really new and for which a premium will be paid, or is it easier to simply claim innovation?