Food security is key to sustainable nutrition: Kerry APMEA CEO

Helena V Berbie
John Cahalane, President & CEO Kerry APMEA (PHOTO: Kerry)

John Cahalane, President & CEO Kerry Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa. (PHOTO: Kerry)

SINGAPORE — Ever wondered how the flavours of your favourite food and beverage products are created? The technology and innovation behind it — how it tastes, its texture, whether it is fortified with nutrients, probiotics or immune-boosting ingredients, and even its shelf life — are developed by food and beverage solution company, Kerry Group.

Kerry is responsible for making your low-fat, plant-based milkshake taste like milkshake made with regular milk, right down to its texture and how it feels in your mouth. They are also the ones who apply trending flavours and ingredients to food products, like the mala flavoured potato chips and gluten-free oat creamer that tastes and functions just like dairy.

The group was founded in Ireland in 1972 and has offices around the globe. The Singapore branch, which is the headquarters for the Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa (APMEA) region, is led by John Cahalane, President and CEO of Kerry APMEA.

Understanding markets is crucial as different regions view sustainability differently. “For the APMEA consumer, sustainability is not about ‘saving the planet’, unlike in the west. Rather, it’s a personal concern as their health is directly affected by food security and safety,” Cahalane said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore.

“For consumers in the region, sustainability is a solution to reduce the risk they personally face from poor practices in food processing and handling, and environmental threats such as haze, water and oil pollution, landfills, and soil contamination — all of which influence the security of their food supply,” he added.

When it comes to sustainability, the company has a goal of reaching more than two billion people with sustainable nutrition solutions by 2030. According to a July 2021 sustainability report by the company, the market is ready of it — 49 per cent of 14,000 consumers surveyed said that they consider sustainability when buying food and beverage products. The report also estimated the overall spending power of consumers already engaged with sustainability at US$382 billion, opening up considerable opportunity for players in the food and beverage space.

The pandemic has pushed food safety, health and environment into the spotlight as consumers looked for greater reassurance about their food. Consumer views on sustainability are also evolving as ethical foods begin to gain traction with a growing demand for waste-free foods and planet positive solutions such as eco positive farming which use sustainable and cruelty-free practices and help conserve natural resources.

Meat alternatives that avoid animal agriculture, or ‘clean meat’, are also in demand, with plant-based being the most popular option. 

Kerry innovation is driven by developing the product line to more than just meatless burgers but to other varieties such as pork, beef, chicken and lamb that offer the same look, taste and mouthfeel as actual meat. The company’s ‘Radicle’ portfolio of plant-based food ingredients aims to bring authentic taste, optimal nutrition and great texture to plant-based foods.

The 44-year-old Ireland native has been with Kerry for 19 years first starting out at Kerry USA. He took the helm at Kerry APMEA in May 2020, after a 16-year stint in Mexico at Kerry Latin America where he also met his wife. He moved here with her and their six-year-old daughter, who according to Cahalane, has transitioned well to Singapore.

He shares his thoughts on his corporate experience and how he finds living in Singapore.

You were originally from Ireland, what compelled you to take up a position abroad?

I wanted to travel and see the world but did not want to put my career on hold. I was looking at various locations but the main reason I chose the role in Kerry in the US was the level of time the senior management spent with me in the hiring process. It showed me that they appreciated the importance of talent and the process of recruiting the right people, rather than it all being about the business. This is what I expect of my senior leaders in APMEA today, that they invest their time and energy in their people. Once you have the right talent and take care of them, they will take care of the business.

You’ve been stationed in different regions; do you have a favourite travel destination?

There are many places but one that stands out is a small fishing port in the Pacific Coast in Mexico called Zihuatanejo. It’s actually the beach at the end of the movie ‘Shawshank Redemption’. It’s a very small, quiet location that’s not very touristy.

You’re in the food and beverage industry and must have sampled a lot of different cuisines and flavours. What’s your favourite food or drink?

Tacos Al Pastor. My wife is Mexican and I spent many years in Mexico. That’s what we used to eat on the weekends with family and friends.

How is Singapore different from the rest of the countries you’ve worked in?

Many of the countries I’ve lived and worked in have not been as developed. That said, each country has positives and negatives and it’s up to the person to be open to see that. One of the biggest positives is the quality of the infrastructure in Singapore. When it comes to business, you can get things done quickly and efficiently. There’s great accessibility, and once borders open up, there’s the ease of travel from Singapore to the rest of the world. I’m also struck by Singapore’s rich cultural diversity.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Stepping out of your comfort zone. There was once a really big opportunity for me which I almost missed because I was too comfortable. I had a good mentor who encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone. A few months later, I found myself in a different country, in a small town in Mexico — I ended up spending 16 years in Latin America. This was one of the defining moments in my life.

Who or what inspires you most?

Watching young talent develop through their careers always inspires me. I love to see how our teams approach a difficult or bad situation; instead of finger-pointing, they work together and turn the business around as a team, setting it up sustainably for the long term.

Many years ago, I read “The Warren Buffet CEO: Secrets from the Berkshire Hathaway Managers” which I really enjoyed. It reveals the investment and management strategies of the Berkshire Hathaway management team, with interviews of Berkshire’s chief executives, officers, and directors. It takes a unique look at the Berkshire Hathaway culture and its management principles.

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