Failed Food

It's more than a matter of bad taste.

Michael Okoniewski/Gamma Liaison Network

In March 1996, Iceland Frozen Foods (a British company) introduced Wacky Veg, a heartfelt attempt to sneak a little nutrition into the vegetable-poor diet insisted on by most English children. They used chocolate to disguise carrots, pizza sauce to cover up corn, and a cheesy onion concoction to perk up cauliflower (as if this particular vegetable did not have a hard enough time on its own). Needless to say, the Wacky Veg line was discontinued within months.

According to Robert McMath, a product analyst who has been studying food failures for 30 years, Wacky Veg violated the basic principle that a new product must make sense. Thankfully, McMath, who sees every failure as an opportunity, lectures industry managers and food technologists on such mistakes at the New Products Showcase and Learning Center, in Ithaca, New York—the institute of misfit foods. McMath has catalogued more than eighty thousand failures: items like ''I hate peas'', a mysterious product of the '70s that dished up mashed peas in the (theoretically more acceptable) shape of french fries; 1978's Electric French Fry, a savory variation on the Pop-Tart theme that promised quick and crispy fries from the toaster but delivered toasted cardboard; and 1988's Johnston's Hot Scoop, a microwavable fudge sundae that turned out more like a cup of melted ice cream.

To explain the ''idiosyncrasies and idiocies'' of such innovations, McMath, along with journalist Thom Forbes, wrote What Were They Thinking? (Random House), an A-to-Z take on gourmet gimmicks of the 20th century. Eight out of ten new foods will not succeed in today's market-place, McMath concludes—and that doesn't even take into account those products that never _get _to the marketplace: Like Wacky Veg's candy-apple corn, bubble gum-flavored broccoli, and shrimp cocktail-flavored cauliflower, all of which were vetoed in taste tests by children.