Putting food under the microscope
PUBLISHED: 10:15 24 July 2013 | UPDATED: 10:15 24 July 2013
Do you buy the same groceries every week? The odds are against it.
The UK’s food and drink industry develops over seven thousand new products a year. Some are a hit, others not. Many of us are food dilettantes, professing to understand what we buy and why, in reality behaving like noisy starlings, swooping indiscriminately on delicious and prettily wrapped morsels of food.
Such human behaviour is a gift to Campden BRI, the internationally respected food research centre based in the heart of the Cotswolds.
A shocking fact: A third of all the food bought to eat at home goes in the bin, and around a third of all food produced across the world never gets to market. Simply solving spoilage and waste problems would really help the global issue of food security and safety. The difficulty is having the right food in the right place at the right time.
Campden BRI, headed up by Director General Professor Steven Walker, helps develop the right food of the right quality. The right place and the right time are up to its members: food and drink producers, food service companies and retailers.
Steven has worked at the company for 27 years, and as Director General since 2009. “I arrived when food safety and food microbiology were high on the national agenda and Edwina Currie’s famous Salmonella in eggs remarks pushed the issues further into the spotlight.”
There has been a food research facility at Chipping Campden since 1919, set up by the post First World War Government to look at canning plum varieties grown in the nearby Vale of Evesham. Campden BRI was formed in 2008 by the merger of Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association and Brewing Research International.
“Historically, people in the food industry tended to try and solve their own problems not realising they could be creating difficulties further up or down the food supply chain,” explains Steven. “A product might be of great quality with a long shelf life, but in terms of food safety and spoilage there might be a problem. A shorter shelf life on food products causes more wastage as consumers throw them out.
“Our scientists look at the consequences of changing tastes. The country must meet consumer health concerns by controlling calories and reducing sugar, salt and saturated fat levels, but food still needs to taste good otherwise we won’t buy it. There are also environmental concerns and sustainability issues, particularly in relation to controlling water usage and water conservation.”
Campden BRI’s members recently voted for nine research projects this year, costing around £2 million, to include investigation into sweeteners, fat replacers to reduce calories and examining sustainable water supply.
Hygiene is a big issue and Steven points out that UK hygiene standards for chilled food production are world class. “A lot has been driven by retailers with strong brands to protect, but some people may be shocked at the standards in other parts of the world, including in developed countries.”
Big food poisoning incidents in this country are rare. Smaller food poisoning not so; being sporadic they rarely hit the headlines but there are good systems in place for monitoring and tackling serious cases where they arise. A lot, thinks Steven, comes from the home others from some of the food service sector, but issues with manufacturers generally get picked up because their systems are good.
Supply chains are also getting complicated. “Getting food from a field to a consumer should be simple,” says Steven. “You have a farmer and a farm gate and if we eat seasonal food with short shelf lives it works. But we are no longer satisfied with that. If you want asparagus, you can buy it 12 months a year. Personally I eat it for two months, and I harvested the first from my garden in April.”
We can bring some food production back to the UK, but we are blessed with British weather. “In a normal year, the UK is self sufficient in wheat,” explains Steven. “But last year’s dreadful weather forced companies like Premier, which makes Hovis, and Weetabix, to abandon buying only British – there just wasn’t enough British wheat of the right quality. This year the fields have been sodden. With really good weather we might recover, we just don’t know at the moment.”
Campden BRI supports farmers by working with the NFU. “We focus on how agricultural output fits the food industry,” explains Steven. “Are the foods being grown appropriate for the uses they will be put to? Not all wheat makes good bread - some varieties are for biscuits or cakes, and some for animal feed.”
Processed foods are part of our lifestyle and the food industry does a great job in feeding an already vast and growing number of people. Campden BRI’s remit is to improve what the industry does in a very competitive marketplace.
The company also benchmarks retailer products against others and does consumer testing of products. This involves bringing consumers on site, and Campden BRI has around 3000 people registered as tasters, 270 in the Chipping Campden area and 500 across Gloucestershire, but also across the country because Chipping Campden tastes just might not be the most representative.
To meet global demand for its services (Campden BRI now has members in 74 countries worldwide and a 2012 turnover of over £21 million), and with revenues up 17 per cent over the past two years, the company has installed £1.4 million worth of new processing and analytical equipment and a new £300,000 sample receipt and preparation facility. It has also given its 360-strong workforce a pay rise of eight per cent over two years, and bonuses of over £1000.
Steven loves his job. “There’s variety and opportunity and our staff can make their jobs as big as they want. I told my wife we were coming for two years in 1986 when we left Northern Ireland. We’re still here.”