Food for Thought: Food Industry Innovation 2019

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

4th April 2019

6 minute read

Home » Insights » Food for Thought: Food Industry Innovation 2019

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘homemade’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘home made’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

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