These are exciting and dynamic times for Scotland’s £13.9 billion food and drink industry, a sector that continues to outstrip targets for growth and export with international sales of £5.3bn.
Essential to this trajectory has been innovation, and a creative and collaborative environment remains vital to its continuing development. With around 118,000 people employed in more than 17,000 food and drink businesses through the whole supply chain, the sector has become a strong backbone for the Scottish economy.
To ensure it not only remains standing tall but continues to take strides in establishing new markets, a range of partnerships and initiatives has been developed that brings together industry, Scottish Government agencies and academia, focused directly on supporting innovation through funding and sharing expertise.
The strength and depth of this joined-up approach is reaping benefits in an industry that extends across agriculture, fishing and aquaculture, and also into food and drink manufacturing.
In 2011, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) announced a five-year funding package of £10.58 million to support a partnership of 17 Scottish universities. The investment was seed-funded by the SFC with an initial £2.64m, with trade associations such as Scotland Foodand Drink and participating companies also contributing £4.84m of cash and in-kind support.
Led by Aberdeen, Abertay and Heriot-Watt universities, together with Interface, the knowledge connection agency for business, the network was designed specifically in response to a consultation process with the food and drink industry.
Centres of excellence, such as Food Innovation @ Abertay (FIA), set up nine years ago, and the recently launched Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, are at the cutting edge in the development, manufacture and improvement of products and are in beneficial relationships with industry that enhance their capability.
The Clydesdale Bank (see page 15) began a successful partnership with Scotland Food and Drink two years ago, forming an agreement that was innovative in itself and which continues to allow the organisations to work together to support Scottish businesses by identifying growth opportunities both here and in foreign markets.
Interface also administers the two SFC schemes, the innovation voucher and the follow-on innovation voucher, providing funding of up to £5,000 and £20,000 respectively to a university working with a Scottish-based small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) that must also match the value of the academic investment.
The support and development pathways are clear, but what exactly is innovation when it comes to the food and drink sector, and how much of a difference can it make to an individual business, in addition to the wider industry?
Helen Pratt, head of Interface Food and Drink, believes some businesses and organisations remain wary of the i-word, a reluctance that can only limit their potential. “Innovation in food and drink is no different to any other sector,” she says. “It’s key to future competiveness and to growth. The more companies innovate in terms of new products, or in what they do, the more it stands them and the economy in very good stead.
“Here in Scotland there are also lots of layers of funding and support beyond the vouchers. Maybe a company needs bigger chunks to take the next step, or perhaps to look at strengthening the knowledge and skills of their team, through accessing scholarship support for PhD or Masters students. This can also represent a significant investment on behalf of the company, as it can be up to £45,000 on top of what we contribute.
“However, we encourage companies to put cash into initiatives as it’s important they see the value of what they are getting out. They could never get this level of expertise and support from the private sector at the same price. Here at Interface, we see a variety of projects, some are about technology, some are product development, but innovation is about more than just bringing out a new flavour of something or tinkering with the recipe; real innovation can come in many different ways.”
Turning to particular examples, she continues: “One company looked at using the process of hyperspectral imaging for detecting moisture loss, as a method of predicting shelf life. Seeing technology that is used elsewhere – hyperspectral imaging has various applications from laboratory research and medical uses to environmental monitoring and defence – then exploring if it could be used in food and drink, and making that connection, is very exciting.
“Another company is looking at labelling and packaging, with a process that can identify any potential abuse in the supply chain, using ink that will change colour if it’s not kept cold enough, for instance. This is something we hope will help to reduce waste and get us away from the limitations of use-by dates, by finding other ways to demonstrate the longevity of a product.
“That’s the interesting thing: the supply chain goes all the way back to the primary source, such as wheat in agriculture, and all the way forward to the plate – and there are a lot of steps in between. In the drinks industry, for instance, making glass bottles thinner has reduced weight and therefore transport costs, and it’s also more sustainable.
Helen Pratt also offers some thoughts on production processes. “We had a company making cheese sauce,” she says, “but as part of the process some of the product suffered ‘burn-on’, dark bits that had to be flushed away, producing waste and affecting cost in lost hours. We brought in several academics and technical people to the discussion and came up with three different projects, one of which developed into a bigger spin-off. So there is also benefit in academic partners working for industry, as they also learn more, expand the knowledge base, and can ultimately take on more.
“One way that has allowed smaller, independent producers to innovate in the safety of a group is through common interest groups. There are now eight of these groups which are achieving so much more together than they could alone, from reaching new markets to finding innovative solutions to industry-wide problems such as waste.
“Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes, yet some people remain a little frightened by the word. It’s so important we help people to understand that everybody in a company, wherever they are in a factory, or in the supply chain, has the potential to make a step change, and that a small change can make a big difference.”
That win-win environment created by academic and business collaboration can clearly be seen in the achievements of Abertay University’s product development and consumer research innovation centre FIA, established in 2006 and the first in Scotland to offer such a support service specifically aimed at food and drink businesses. The FIA team of food technologists, consumer scientists and research academics help businesses to grow not only by developing new and existing products, but also by conducting detailed consumer analysis.
Jennifer Bryson, business development manager at FIA, describes how Abertay’s expertise and facilities can help businesses to tap into new trends in addition to creating new products for emerging markets. The team offers nutritional analysis, shelf-life testing, production advice and support, as well as packaging and labelling advice. Its consumer panellists test the acceptability of products when determining substitutes for food flavouring or colouring, or reduced salt and fat content.
“We are at the forefront of undertaking consumer research on behalf of the food and drink sector here,” she says. “We have the consumer panels, and we also have resources such as eye-tracking, which establishes where a consumer’s gaze alights longest on a product and where they linger least – useful information if you want to test new packaging or a new logo. We also have technology that measures response to texture and mouth feel, monitoring the movement of the facial muscles when chewing.
“With the consumer panel, we have 159 people signed up to do consumer research testing and provide feedback. The panellists come from across the socio-economic spectrum and cover a wide range of ages, but this also allows us to offer really specific sampling. We were once asked to work with a panel of shoppers aged 35-45 who shopped in one specific supermarket, and we could do that.
“We do a lot of new product development. An accountant once came to us with an idea he had for sweet potato crisps, and he wanted help to find a way of cooking them and flavouring them. With the success of Hectares, that person is no longer an accountant…
“Another exciting aspect of our work is we can also create virtual products and packaging. With the support of our computer gaming experts, we can develop a visual version of a product. With the right goggles and gloves this allows someone not only to see the product in 3D, but also to virtually pick it off the shelf.”
This virtual product testing is a great example of how a university such as Abertay can make the most of its expertise, and facilities, to help support food and drink projects, and not just in its lab-based departments.
“Being one of the smallest universities makes it easier for all of us to communicate across disciplines,” Jennifer Bryson adds, “which leads to us exploring how different technologies can be applied in the food and drink industry. For instance, we have computed tomography scanning equipment used for medical testing and also for soil analysis that we can use for non-destructive food testing. We can put a currant bun in and see exactly how many currants there are, and where they are distributed, but without distorting or damaging the product.
“One of our great strengths is that we can pull in that expertise, whether it is medical, sport, psychology or gaming-based, and that would be more difficult to do in other universities where the size of the establishment means it is not so easy to have that level of communication with other departments. Of course, overall, the work we do here is beneficial for us, and helps keep us up-to-date with the industry.”
Six months ago, the industry’s network of support was further enhanced by the opening of the Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation at Queen Margaret University. The on-campus SME, Advanced Microwave Technologies (AMT), is an excellent example of how one significant innovation can also lead to many more.
AMT has emerged as one of the world’s most innovative users of microwave expertise in the food and drink sector, helping to extend the shelf-life of food without destroying nutrients or changing taste. Initial trials with small Scottish supplier Get Juiced involved a pasteurisation process that extended the life of fruit juice from eight days to four weeks.