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New skills for traditional food SMEs

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What is your idea of a perfect meal? How about some local cheese, artisanal bread and a few slices of regional ham? Traditional food producers are getting help to continue producing in the competitive 21st century, with know-how and training from an EU-funded project.

Traditional foods are an important part of many local economies – and a vital part of local heritage. But in the tough world of the food business, SME producers need up-to-date businesses and technology to stay competitive.

The TRADEIT project has developed a European network of bakery, dairy and meat-producing SMEs, food networks, associations, researchers and technology providers. The project aims to support traditional food producers by sharing new knowledge, technologies and best practice on product, process and operational innovations.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the value of food from high-quality sources, and the benefits of purchasing locally, says project coordinator Helena McMahon of the Institute of Technology in Tralee, Ireland. This has resulted in a growing artisan and local food sector.

Whilst a food producer knows how to make authentic high quality traditional food, this is not always matched with the know-how to make the most of business opportunities. “Many food entrepreneurs have no formal business training and do not have time to keep up with market developments,” explains McMahon.

The project’s 19 partners – from marketing, industry and academia – and other businesses are sharing their expertise to help these businesses thrive.

Knowledge transfer

“One of our key activities is training,” says McMahon. Workshops and knowledge transfer events are targeted to local businesses through regional hubs – two in Spain and one each in Ireland, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Poland and Finland.

Some hubs focus on bakery, dairy or meat whilst others specialise in cross-sector issues such as packaging, sustainability and food safety. “The hub structure supports regional strengths and capacities,” explains McMahon.

Free workshops organised by each hub provide SMEs with practical advice, case studies and IT tools. Modules are designed around operational themes, adapted to regional issues and in national languages. Longer-term support is accessible online, including the TRADEIT Marketplace network, training materials and an online magazine dedicated to SME food producers – Taste of Science.

In its first 18 months, the three-year project has held technology and business brokerage events presenting emerging technologies and RDI relevant to SMEs in the project’s sectors as well as packaging and sustainable processing.

Workshops across Europe have addressed food safety, pricing strategies, marketing, labelling, supply chain management and regional designations such as PGI & PDO. More are planned for the rest of the project on plant design, environmental management, product development and IT solutions.

The potential of academia to grow the traditional food sector is not forgotten. TRADEIT has run two successful Entrepreneurial Summer Academies, in which researchers and research managers learn how to identify market applications of innovation and best practice emerging from their RDI activities. The next Summer Academy will take place in June 2016 in Potsdam, Germany.

Networking and innovation

Online, businesses can sign up to the TRADEIT Electronic Marketplace – a specialist forum for businesses and researchers in the sector. “It is creating connections between food producers and researchers across Europe, for knowledge transfer and innovation partnerships,” says McMahon.

At the Irish Ploughing Championships in September 2015, TRADEIT will have a stand in the EU Pavilion sharing updates on new technological developments, information on geographical designations and resources such as the Marketplace and Taste of Science.

October 2015 is another busy month. At the Dingle Food Festival in Ireland, over 20 of the network’s members will present their produce at the EuroFoodVision tent, while the final TRADEIT Technology Transfer Event, to be held in Tralee on 1 October, will introduce new food safety technologies to SMEs.

Outside the project’s events, its online publication, Taste of Science, keeps food producers abreast of the latest research and business information. To fill gaps in current know-how, a strategic research and innovation agenda is being developed, with input from SME food producers, policy makers and researchers. A public consultation document will be launched in October, accessible via the TRADEIT website.

McMahon encourages more companies to sign up to TRADEIT and hopes the research areas the project identifies will prompt further collaborations. “We are very positive about this project’s impact and future outcomes for producers.”

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