Chen Li­jun, Dairy Prod­uct In­no­va­tor

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Bo­hui Edited by Justin Davis Pho­tos cour­tesy of the Bei­jing Sanyuan Foods Co., Ltd.

A hard­work­ing pro­fes­sional has made ma­jor strides and helmed many re­forms and devel­op­ments not just at a large com­pany but also in China’s dairy in­dus­try in gen­eral. Chen’s ef­forts have taken the in­dus­try to a new level in the coun­try.

Sanyuan Foods' for­ti­fied break­fast milk, fruit-flavoured yo­ghurt, cal­cium-rich yo­ghurt and pure milk have re­ceived a pos­i­tive re­sponse in the food in­dus­try and have be­come pop­u­lar with con­sumers. The com­pany's prod­ucts taste good and are nu­tri­tious. The cre­ation and pop­u­lar­ity of the prod­ucts are closely re­lated to Chen Li­jun, the deputy gen­eral man­ager of the Bei­jing Sanyuan Foods Co., Ltd.

Chen wants to make use­ful in­no­va­tions and im­ple­ment his bold ideas. From Septem­ber 1995 to Fe­bru­ary 1998, he com­pleted a study on the pro­duc­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion of ac­tive soy­bean pep­tides when he was pur­su­ing his doc­toral de­gree. This was sup­ported by Hei­longjiang Prov­ince's Spe­cial Gover­nor's Fund. The study was ac­cepted by the Hei­longjiang Provin­cial Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Com­mis­sion in Novem­ber 2000. Chen car­ried out re­search into the ex­trac­tion, trans­for­ma­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion of soy­bean oligosac­cha­ride and the ex­trac­tion, pu­rifi­ca­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion of im­mu­nity-en­hanc­ing sub­stances in eggs, which earned him the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment of Hei­longjiang Prov­ince's Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Progress or­gan­i­sa­tion's se­cond prize and the Ad­vanced Hei­longjiang Prov­ince's Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy or­gan­i­sa­tion's se­cond prize in 2001.

Af­ter earn­ing his doc­tor­ate in 1998, Chen joined Sanyuan Foods and be­gan to lead prod­uct in­no­va­tion, which greatly en­hanced the de­vel­op­ment of the Chi­nese dairy in­dus­try. In 2005, he led the de­vel­op­ment of nearly 100 new prod­ucts. Many of his in­no­va­tive prod­ucts, such as for­ti­fied break­fast milk and var­i­ous yo­ghurts, have be­come some of Sanyuan Foods' main of­fer­ings and cre­ated in­creas­ing prof­its for the com­pany. In 2001, he was awarded the “Pace­set­ter for Eco­nomic and Tech­no­log­i­cal In­no­va­tion” award and “Cap­i­tal Labour Medal” by the Bei­jing Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions as a re­sult of his achieve­ments. Chen con­tin­ues to in­no­vate. In June 2001, he be­gan to de­velop a se­ries of prod­ucts, such as fruit-flavoured yo­ghurts and spe­cial, for­ti­fied break­fast milks, which were ac­cepted by the mar­ket and con­sumers. In May 2002, his pa­per on the de­vel­op­ment of for­ti­fied break­fast milks with house-shaped pack­ag­ing won the Bei­jing Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Progress or­gan­i­sa­tion's se­cond prize. In 2003, he was re­spon­si­ble for a project that was con­cerned with de­vel­op­ing China's first high-den­sity poly­eth­yl­ene (HDPE) milk con­tainer. He was listed as one of Bei­jing's Top-10 Young Engi­neers as a re­sult of his work on the project. In 2004, he car­ried out projects re­lated to im­prov­ing the com­pany's pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency and was a team leader. Chen wanted to op­ti­mise pro­duc­tion by ad­just­ing soft­ware re­lated to pro­duc­tion and pro­cesses. This was done with­out hav­ing to up­grade any equip­ment or fa­cil­i­ties. Af­ter im­ple­ment­ing this plan to in­crease ef­fi­ciency at a medium-sized plant, it saved more than one mil­lion yuan per year. In May 2004, he led his team mem­bers to in­no­vate the com­pany's yo­ghurts that were pack­aged in bags by us­ing a new pro­cess­ing tech­nol­ogy. The new prod­uct was greatly im­proved in terms of qual­ity and flavour. In Oc­to­ber 2004, China's first yo­ghurt pack­aged in bags with long shelf lives be­gan to en­ter the mar­ket. This al­lowed yo­ghurt to be stored for a longer pe­riod of time and ex­panded the scope of its sales. Later the same year, he was in­cluded in the first “Top-10 Sci­en­tific and Tech­no­log­i­cal Ex­perts in China's Dairy In­dus­try” list.

Af­ter the “melamine-con­tam­i­nated pow­dered in­fant for­mula” scan­dal in 2008, Chen was re­minded that dairy prod­ucts should be re­viewed and de­vel­oped from a na­tional, strate­gic level. The dairy in­dus­try shoul­ders a great re­spon­si­bil­ity with re­gard to the health of Chi­nese peo­ple. Since then, he has de­voted him­self to the re­search and de­vel­op­ment (R&D) of in­fant for­mu­las. The com­pany de­vel­oped a new in­fant for­mula in 2017, which was based on sev­eral years of his re­search. It was ac­cepted by the mar­ket and also in­flu­enced the dairy in­dus­try to fo­cus more on R&D. Sanyuan Foods has con­tributed to re­vi­tal­is­ing China's dairy prod­ucts and the great re­ju­ve­na­tion of the Chi­nese na­tion.

A New Col­league with a Doc­toral De­gree

Chen's ma­jor was fer­men­ta­tion when he stud­ied at the Dalian In­sti­tute of Light In­dus­try. Dur­ing his un­der­grad­u­ate years, he was an hon­our stu­dent and an am­a­teur cross- coun­try ath­lete. In 1990, Chen be­came the in­sti­tute's first beer fer­men­ta­tion mas­ter's de­gree can­di­date to not have to take the en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion as a re­sult of his out­stand­ing grades dur­ing his un­der­grad­u­ate years.

Af­ter ob­tain­ing his mas­ter's de­gree, Chen worked at the in­sti­tute and then a com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in pro­cess­ing fruit and veg­etable juices. He was driven to do more though. He be­gan to an­a­lyse the prospects for and de­vel­op­ment trends in China's food in­dus­try and thought dairy prod­ucts would have ex­ten­sive space for fu­ture de­vel­op­ment, so he de­cided to pur­sue his doc­tor­ate in dairy. In 1995, he en­rolled at the North­east Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity's De­part­ment of Food Sci­ence. He was en­gaged in re­search on ac­tive pep­tides, and his doc­toral the­sis cov­ered this topic. He was con­sid­ered one of China's ear­li­est pro­fes­sion­als to fo­cus on this field.

In July of 1998, Chen ob­tained his doc­toral de­gree. He had many op­por­tu­ni­ties at this point as a re­sult of his ed­u­ca­tional back­ground and ex­cel­lent pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence. He set­tled on a job at Sanyuan Foods. He re­called: “I didn't hes­i­tate to ac­cept this job. I en­tered the com­pany on July 15, 1998. My first po­si­tion was to serve as deputy direc­tor of Sanyuan Foods' Shuangqiao Dairy Fac­tory. The fac­tory was a big en­ter­prise at that time. Its man­age­ment was open-minded and would give young peo­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties. I was ap­pointed the fac­tory's deputy direc­tor. I was in charge of manag­ing its dairy pro­cess­ing tech­nolo­gies and prod­uct qual­ity be­cause of my work ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The fac­tory's man­age­ment trusted him. It seemed a bit odd that a pro­fes­sional with a doc­tor­ate de­gree would ac­cept the of­fer though. The fac­tory hardly re­tained any pro­fes­sion­als with even bach­e­lor's de­grees at that time. Many em­ploy­ees won­dered why some­one with a PHD was will­ing to work there. Some pre­dicted that Chen would leave within three months, but did not care, how­ever. He once worked in a fac­tory and was not un­fa­mil­iar with pro­duc­tion prac­tices. He joked that he was not a new hand. In­stead, he wanted to tem­per him­self through prac­tice.

Chen in­ves­ti­gated the first line as

soon as he be­gan his work. He found that some work­ers were rub­bing some­thing with their hands and was told that this was a very im­por­tant process. They were adding a sta­biliser into the yo­gurt. The fac­tory spent 90,000 yuan to buy the for­mula for the sta­biliser. Work­ers had to rub some raw ma­te­ri­als with their hands. Oth­er­wise, the sta­biliser would not fully re­act with the yo­ghurt.

Chen found that this process was in­ef­fi­cient. He told the fac­tory direc­tor so and that it was not a great way to im­prove dis­so­lu­tion. The process was also a bur­den for the work­ers. He pro­posed a bet­ter method for im­prov­ing pro­duc­tion. He led his team mem­bers to se­lect a va­ri­ety of al­ter­na­tive, do­mes­tic sta­bilis­ers. Af­ter three months of ex­per­i­ments, they found a com­pos­ite sta­biliser that re­sulted in good dis­so­lu­tion for a rea­son­able price. It would im­prove the qual­ity of the yo­ghurt that was be­ing made and re­duce the work­load of Chen's col­leagues. They also be­gan to change their ideas about him. They did not ques­tion him any­more and be­gan to trust him.

Chen re­counted: “Six months af­ter I be­gan to work at the fac­tory, I in­creased its prof­its by se­lect­ing a bet­ter sta­biliser and im­prov­ing that process. The most im­por­tant part of this change was earn­ing the trust of the man­age­ment and the reg­u­lar em­ploy­ees. I was 31 years old at that time.”

Car­ry­ing out R&D

A year later, Chen was pro­moted to fac­tory direc­tor as a re­sult of his re­mark­able ca­pac­ity for work. Af­ter that, he ac­cel­er­ated his re­forms and in­no­va­tions and made many use­ful changes. The first was the for­ti­fied break­fast milk he de­vel­oped, which is con­sid­ered a mile­stone in China's dairy in­dus­try. This milk be­came pop­u­lar through­out China soon af­ter en­ter­ing the mar­ket. At that time, many vis­i­tors to Bei­jing would re­ceive re­quests to take some Sanyuan Foods for­ti­fied break­fast milk back to their fam­i­lies and friends in other parts of China.

Chen re­lated: “We did a lot of mar­ket re­search to de­velop for­ti­fied break­fast milk, but we did not re­quire many peo­ple to do it. We just needed to find out about peo­ple's daily ex­pe­ri­ences. At that time, I found that some ur­ban res­i­dents in both North and South China ate milk, eggs and ce­real in the morn­ing. I thought it could be con­ve­nient if they were all mixed to­gether.” It was not easy to de­velop a new prod­uct, and Chen put in a great deal of ef­fort to carry out the R&D of this prod­uct. Chen ex­plained: “Eggs will so­lid­ify if they are heated even slightly. Main­tain­ing their liq­uid state in­creases their sta­bil­ity. Eggs need to be sta­bilised af­ter they are beaten and added to the milk. This en­sures the prod­uct looks and tastes good and is also nu­tri­tious. Com­bin­ing milk, eggs and ce­real can be an ex­act sci­ence. The for­mula is im­por­tant. Our aim is to en­sure that our prod­uct will not have any com­peti­tors for three years. Many en­ter­prises copied our prod­uct, but they have not suc­ceeded. Our for­ti­fied break­fast milk cre­ated a ‘new in­dus­try' at the time.”

Chen's in­no­va­tions and re­forms im­proved the com­pany's of­fer­ings as well as pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency and prof­its. At that time, one pro­ce­dure in­volved pick­ing up bags of milk on an as­sem­bly line. About 40 work­ers were re­quired to op­er­ate twenty ma­chines. Chen ex­am­ined the process and thought he could im­prove it. A worker took a bag of milk from a large box and squeezed it to see if there were any leaks. He then put it back into the box. Fast work­ers could com­plete the process within a few sec­onds. Some work­ers took al­most one minute to com­plete the sim­ple task though. Chen thought en­cour­ag­ing the work­ers at the fa­cil­ity would help with im­prov­ing pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency. He pro­posed an ad­just­ment of the work­ers' wages. The to­tal amount of money al­lo­cated for salaries could not be ad­justed, but the num­ber of work­ers de­voted to this task could be re­duced to 20. Av­er­age monthly wages would, there­fore, be dou­bled.

Peo­ple won­dered whether they would make the cut and if they could han­dle the in­creased work­load. Chen ex­plained: “I put many bags of milk on the con­veyor belt and asked less than 20 peo­ple to do the job. The re­sult con­firmed that my idea was fea­si­ble. Later, ev­ery­one sup­ported my re­form. Peo­ple who stayed got raises and ef­fi­ciency in­creased greatly.”

In Fe­bru­ary 2002, Chen was pro­moted deputy gen­eral man­ager of Sanyuan Foods and direc­tor of its R&D cen­tre. He be­came re­spon­si­ble for the com­pany's R&D, pro­duc­tion, qual­ity con­trol and mar­ket­ing. He quickly led a R&D project to ex­tend the shelf life of yo­ghurt. Sanyuan Foods was China's first dairy com­pany to do so. When live micro­organ­isms are killed and asep­tic pack­ag­ing is used, yo­ghurt can last longer. Nutri­tion is main­tained and the pack­ag­ing is con­ve­nient for con­sumers to open.

Chen thought that co­op­er­a­tion be­tween var­i­ous de­part­ments in the com­pany is vi­tal when de­vel­op­ing a good prod­uct that will be ac­cepted by the mar­ket. The com­pany's R&D, mar­ket­ing, pro­duc­tion and PR de­part­ments should work to­gether. Big un­der­tak­ings like de­vel­op­ing new prod­ucts are not the mis­sions of a sin­gle em­ployee or de­part­ment. They re­quire the en­tire en­ter­prise to work to­gether as a com­plete sys­tem. The suc­cess of a prod­uct is usu­ally re­lated to the suc­cess of the sys­tem. A good prod­uct can be fur­thered by other en­ter­prises in its in­dus­try and will have the op­por­tu­nity to be im­proved.

Re­vi­tal­is­ing China’s Dairy In­dus­try

The melamine-con­tam­i­nated pow­dered in­fant for­mula scan­dal in 2008 im­pacted many of China's well-known dairy com­pa­nies, which led to a de­cline in the in­dus­try for a while. Sanyuan Foods was an ex­cep­tion be­cause it has al­ways pro­vided authen­tic and safe dairy prod­ucts to con­sumers by virtue of its strict qual­ity con­trol. It be­came a ma­jor force in the re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of China's dairy in­dus­try.

Chen re­counted: “At that time, af­ter I led my team mem­bers to pur­chase a dairy en­ter­prise in He­bei Prov­ince, I told the then-gen­eral man­ager we should not put too much em­pha­sis on our out­put when we de­velop in­fant for­mu­las. We also need to do a lot of re­search. In­fant for­mu­las are the only source of food for in­fants who are not fed by breast milk. They are in a very im­por­tant pe­riod at that time. The 1,000-day pe­riod from em­bryo to a 2-year-old baby is the most crit­i­cal pe­riod in the growth and de­vel­op­ment of some­one's life. The nu­tri­tional ba­sis of

this pe­riod in­flu­ences one's growth, health and hap­pi­ness for the rest of his or her life. In­fants need to be treated well dur­ing this golden pe­riod. Or­gan de­vel­op­ment is ir­re­versible. A child is not only part of the hap­pi­ness and hopes of a fam­ily but is also part of the fu­ture of the coun­try. The qual­ity of in­fant for­mu­las is re­lated to a child's phys­i­cal health and is part of the health of our na­tion.”

The com­pany had to think about the best way to make in­fant for­mu­las, con­duct R&D and main­tain good qual­ity con­trol. In 2008, there were gaps in pro­cesses re­lated to for­mula in China. Chen pro­posed to the com­pany's man­age­ment that the gaps should be filled. More­over, its R&D should be con­ducted at a na­tional, strate­gic level and not just from an en­ter­prise level. Sanyuan Foods would shoul­der re­spon­si­bil­ity for the re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of China's dairy in­dus­try.

At that time, most peo­ple in China would be­gin con­ver­sa­tions about in­fant for­mu­las by talk­ing about im­ported for­eign brands. Peo­ple could not nec­es­sar­ily ex­plain why they were good in de­tail though. China had a na­tional stan­dard for in­fant for­mu­las, which in­cluded in­di­ca­tors re­gard­ing pro­tein, car­bo­hy­drates, min­er­als and other nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion.

Any prod­ucts that com­plied with the re­quire­ments were con­sid­ered qual­i­fied. The na­tional stan­dard did not ex­plain how to rate var­i­ous in­fant for­mu­las ex­actly though. China also lacked large-scale, sys­tem­atic re­search on the com­po­si­tion of breast milk in the coun­try. There was no in­for­ma­tion avail­able re­gard­ing what kind of for­mula would be the most suitable for Chi­nese in­fants and would ben­e­fit Chi­nese peo­ple's phys­i­olo­gies the best.

The Peo­ple's Gov­ern­ment of Bei­jing Mu­nic­i­pal­ity worked with Sanyuan Foods to re­vi­talise China's dairy in­dus­try. The com­pany ap­plied to in­vest 100 mil­lion yuan to set up a State-level Na­tional Dairy Health Tech­nol­ogy Re­search Cen­tre. R&D car­ried out at the cen­tre would fo­cus on ar­eas such as study­ing the com­po­si­tion of Chi­nese breast milk, de­vel­op­ing in­fant for­mula that is sim­i­lar to Chi­nese breast milk, and en­sur­ing its con­tin­u­ous up­grade and im­prove­ment.

Chen led his team mem­bers to co­op­er­ate with more than 20 do­mes­tic en­ti­ties, such as uni­ver­si­ties, hos­pi­tals, re­search in­sti­tutes and en­ter­prises, as well as more than 200 ex­perts, to carry out re­search about breast milk in six cities and prov­inces. More than 1,000 breast milk sam­ples would be col­lected from a given mother as part of a rigourous and re­li­able co­hort study, and a long-term, fol­low-up study would be con­ducted. The sam­ples were dif­fi­cult to ob­tain, as a re­sult of the project's long time span.

Chen ex­plained: “In or­der to carry out a com­par­a­tive ex­per­i­ment, we had to look for vol­un­teers in hos­pi­tals. We found that for­eign dairy en­ter­prises were do­ing sim­i­lar re­search. It was not easy to re­cruit vol­un­teers for the ex­per­i­ment. Luck­ily, a doc­tor's rel­a­tive agreed to co­op­er­ate with us. Three days af­ter the ex­per­i­ment, the vol­un­teer said our prod­uct did well and shared her baby's feel­ings about the prod­uct with other peo­ple at a pro­mo­tional ac­tiv­ity. More than 100 at­ten­dees at the ac­tiv­ity en­tered into agree­ments with us to par­tic­i­pate in the ex­per­i­ment. We got a good foothold in the com­pe­ti­tion with for­eign com­pa­nies. We spent four years study­ing breast milk to in­crease the nu­tri­tional con­tent of our in­fant for­mula. It was im­por­tant to up­grade it to pro­mote the health of in­fants' mi­cro­biome and help it ap­proach the ef­fect of breast feed­ing. Our in­fant for­mula also helps en­sure that the in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment of in­fants is sim­i­lar to what is achieved when breast feed­ing. Our R&D showed what kind of in­fant for­mula is suitable for Chi­nese in­fants.”

Af­ter years of ef­forts, Sanyuan Foods pre­sented its new in­fant for­mula in 2017 based on in-house R&D, which ul­ti­mately cov­ered 20,000 sam­ples and 20 mil­lion data points. The prod­uct was se­lected to be fea­tured at an ex­hi­bi­tion show­cas­ing China's ma­jor sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments that re­sulted from the 12th Five-year Plan (2011–2015). In 2017, sales of the prod­uct in­creased by 260 per­cent.

It is one of the most ex­pen­sive Chi­nese in­fant for­mu­las in China, but its sales are still dou­bling be­cause of con­sumers' trust.

Sanyuan Foods has pro­moted R&D in China's dairy in­dus­try. Many do­mes­tic dairy en­ter­prises be­gan to put more em­pha­sis on ba­sic re­search. Sanyuan Foods led the cre­ation of a com­pre­hen­sive breast milk database for the in­dus­try. The com­pany also es­tab­lished a fund that is used to in­vite ex­perts from higher learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions and well-known hos­pi­tals to con­duct re­search on dairy prod­ucts for in­fants.

Chen said: “No in­fant for­mula can ex­ceed the qual­ity of breast milk. There­fore, we must en­sure that our prod­ucts get as close as pos­si­ble. If we want to do a good job, we have to do a lot of re­search. As tech­nol­ogy and re­search meth­ods progress, we can utilise more and more ad­vanced meth­ods to an­a­lyse breast milk and de­velop more per­fect in­fant for­mu­las that are sim­i­lar to breast milk, which will con­trib­ute to the great re­ju­ve­na­tion of the Chi­nese na­tion.”

Chen Li­jun se­lects a sam­ple for his re­search into in­fant for­mula milk pow­ders.

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