Food production and high-tech - one of the oldest and one of the newest activities known to mankind - might not automatically be thought of together. In reality, high-tech is just as important for the food industry as it is for any other sector. Most of the food consumed today is processed in some way, for example to make it safer, more appetising, more convenient or longer-lasting.
As consumers we may not see the advanced technology as clearly as we do in, say, medicines or IT products. However, in a highly competitive global food market, it is vital that relevant scientific breakthroughs are identified and used as quickly as possible.
This was the background to the start of HighTech Europe, a ‘Network of Excellence’ EU-funded project to improve the links between cutting edge scientific advances and the food industry, and so to facilitate the crucial process of knowledge exchange and technology transfer. It was a task made all the more important by the fact that the European food industry is highly fragmented. Almost 50% of its turnover is accounted for by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which might lack the resources and scale of operation to carry out their own research, or to keep informed about the latest developments taking place elsewhere.
By providing these companies with an easy way of plugging into the latest scientific and technological advances, and applying them in their business operations, HighTech Europe is expected to play a major role in boosting the competitiveness of the European food industry.
At the heart of the project was the creation of a virtual knowledge base, or ‘portal’, known as the Food Tech Innovation Portal (Food TIP). Accessible through the internet (www.foodtech-portal.eu), the Food TIP gathers the latest information on advances in the understanding of fundamental scientific principles. In addition, it tracks state-of-the-art food sector-related developments in applied innovative technology, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology or information and communications technology (ICT). With this information gathered in one place for the first time, the Food TIP enables it all to be cross-referenced with the specific needs of the food industry – thus greatly speeding up the discovery and application of new techniques.
The range of potential new techniques, and the advantages they offer to food processors, is significantly wide. Many were the subjects of successful case studies carried out as part of the HighTech Europe project. They included the demonstration of new microwave heating technologies enabling better pasteurisation and sterilisation of food products, new packaging technologies to extend the shelf-life of meat products, methods to reduce the fat and salt content of meat products, as well as advanced nanotechnology and micro-technology solutions to aid with processes such as beer filtration.
The project team also set up an annual European Food Processing Implementation Award, with one recent winner being the developer of a revolutionary technology for drying pasta, delivering considerable energy savings to what has traditionally been a highly energy-intensive process.
“The ground-breaking Food TIP, enabling any business, whatever its size, to sit at the ‘top table’ of scientific and technological development, was a major achievement,” says HighTech Europe’s Project Coordinator, Dr Kerstin Lienemann of the German Institute of Food Technologies. “For most scientists, it is not their day-to-day job to build a network with industry partners,” she adds. The project demanded a high level of communication and its success was only possible due to the willingness and ability of involved scientists from academia, research and industry to think “out of the box”.
The Food TIP will not stand alone, however. It is intended to be one of the key building blocks for a planned European Institute for Food Processing (EU-IFP), an initiative which is expected to further extend the idea of cooperation and integration between European R&D activities and the food industry.
“The significance of this for the future of Europe’s food industry is clear,” comments Dr Lienemann. “The European food industry is faced with numerous complex challenges nowadays.” “With regards to research, development and innovation, more and more companies are realising the benefit of opening themselves up to allow the use of external ideas and solutions. HighTech Europe, and especially the Food TIP, offers a unique tool to trigger this cooperation between academia and industry,” she concludes.