Thought for food

Britain has an undeserved though largely self-inflicted reputation for not supporting its industrial base with the commitment of say, Germany or Japan. For a long time the political culture in this country has been ‘let industry stand on its own two feet’ and ‘don’t support lame ducks’. So when there is a Government initiative to […]

Britain has an undeserved though largely self-inflicted reputation for not supporting its industrial base with the commitment of say, Germany or Japan. For a long time the political culture in this country has been ‘let industry stand on its own two feet’ and ‘don’t support lame ducks’. So when there is a Government initiative to regenerate an industrial sector, it often fails to get attention.

Regional Food Technology Transfer Centres (RFTTCs), which allow food manufacturers to benefit from the food science knowledge of universities, are a case in point.

Food production is the largest single industry in the UK, yet it is also one of the most fragmented, with thousands of small, isolated companies plus a few mammoths combining to produce the wide variety of foods available today. Many of the small-to-medium sized businesses lack the manpower or expertise to keep up with a constantly changing technical and regulatory environment which is where RFTTCs come in.

Based at the new universities, these government-aided institutions offer local advice and services for small food and drink companies. They help in developing new products, meeting hygiene and safety regulations, and training.

The first four were opened four years ago, though only three now survive, at the University of Plymouth’s Seale-Hayne campus, the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside and the Scottish Agricultural College at Ayr. This year three more come on stream, at South Bank University, the University of Teesside and the University of Reading.

RFTTCs are not a departure for these universities. All have laboratories and faculties teaching food science, and all have long- established links with local food businesses. But what had been done on an ad hoc basis, with a company approaching its local university with a specific project or problem to be solved, is now available as part of a comprehensive service underpinned, at least for the first few years, by government money.

At Ayr, this has meant the college has been able to build a new food hall with a pilot plant facility for the development of dairy products (RFTTCs are encouraged to fine-tune their services to the requirements of the locality). It has helped to step up development trials of local cheeses, ice-cream and yoghurts, while the centre’s experts make sure procedures are in place to meet hygiene standards.

Many supermarkets insist their suppliers use hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP), which requires a high degree of expertise to implement. And though HACCP is not an EU requirement, it has become a standard practice.

Food Focus, the name the agricultural college gives to its RFTTC, favours a straightforward approach. Local farmers can either bring their own milk direct from the farm or use milk supplied by the college, where it is pasteurised if necessary before processing into the end product. In many cases the centre is helping people with no background in milk processing, so its ability to offer training and expertise generally only found in large firms is essential.

At the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside’s Food Innovation Centre, recent work has focused on extending shelf-life for breads and the development of fish- and meat-based foods. ‘We’ve also been doing a lot of sensory evaluation work,’ says Mike Knowles, the centre’s manager.

Like all the RFTTCs, the Food Innovation Centre is set up to serve small and medium-sized businesses, defined by the EU as businesses employing less than 250 people with sales of less than £15m a year.

‘The new universities have always had an applied research emphasis, so nothing has changed in a lot of ways,’ says Knowles. He sees the primary work of the centre as ‘troubleshooting, process development, help with the introduction of HACCP and quality control’.

An important part of the RFTTC’s success is to keep tabs on local food production businesses. Knowles says: ‘We have 2,500 companies on our database and deal with 500 inquiries a year. It leads to perhaps 30 big projects a year.’

At Plymouth, too, setting up a database has been a priority. Richard Shepherd, manager of the Food Technology Centre, says: ‘We offer an information source for food companies and a lot of training, covering areas such as safety, legislation and hygiene. Locally we have small dairies and meat producers, so we are geared to these sectors.’

The centre is proud of its pilot plant facility and laboratories and a lot of its projects are based around the Teaching Company Scheme. Shepherd says: ‘Top-quality graduates work in the industry investigating hygiene and safety issues and on product development.’

The centre has a graduate working with a smoked salmon producer, helping reduce production cycle times. A successful project was at the Abbey Vale Bakery, where new technology has been introduced to the production of Danish pastries.

The Food Technology Centre has tackled the fragmented nature of food manufacturing head-on, by establishing FoodNet, a network of local food companies which meets regularly to discuss issues of concern. Minimising waste is at the top of the agenda, while product development is never off it. This is something of a breakthrough in an industry which is obsessively secretive with justification, given the ease with which a product can be copied and a market stolen.

The new RFTTCs have taken the idea of links with the local community further still. In an effort to justify their investments, both Reading and South Bank universities are setting up membership subscription schemes for local food businesses, though it is too early to say with what level of success.

South Bank University is the only one of the three new RFTTCs with a centre manager, Simon Doff. His aim is to make the London Food Technology Transfer Centre an engine for expansion of food businesses. ‘Our particular perspective is companies looking for growth,’ he confirmed. ‘We are looking to work with companies with a turnover of more than £1m. We tend to be involved in developing new products for new markets, also safety and quality assurance, and developing systems for combined output.’