Europe’s food manufacturing association FoodDrinkEurope (FDE) hosted a debate on EU Industry Day on how to bridge the gap between Europe's research and food innovation.
According to Julie Girling, a member of the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party, Europeans are becoming more detached from their food, with a cloudy understanding of where it comes from and the economic issues driving its production. Yet they are also increasingly concerned with certain issues "at a micro-level".
Echoing comments made by health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis on Friday, Girling said access to selective pieces of information on social media news feeds – “which may be accurate but are not placed in the right context” – on issues such as glyphosate, genetic modification or acrylamide, is fuelling mistrust and holding back innovation.
The fact that the term ‘processed food’ has become almost pejorative is at odds with the fact that many people depend on processed food in their busy lives, and highlights the need to instill confidence in the public over food safety and quality.
Equally important, however, is ensuring industry has confidence in Europe’s business climate. “Companies won’t invest [in research and development] if they don’t think the process in place will allow them to get a product to market.”
According to head of EU directorate for food and feed safety (DG SANTE) Sabine Jülicher, for its size, Europe's food industry has "a medium to low R&D intensity" with around €2.8 billion spent each year on R&D.
Nestlé: 'We can make a business case out of innovation'
Nestlé invests €1.6bn into R&D a year globally with around 5000 people employed in research and product development, and has been investing money into meeting consumer demands for both healthy and natural food, said head of corporate communications and government relations at Nestlé Europe Bart Vandewaetere.
“We can make a business case out of societal innovation. Price is still the main driver for consumers but you see with the new generations that there are shifts, also in eating patterns, and that is something we need to take into account.”
Last year it filed a patent for a natural method to structure sugar differently so that the molecules are hollow, allowing for up to 40% reductions in sugar content in chocolate and confectionery without impacting taste. It has also pledged to have zero environmental impact by 2030 through recycling targets.
Nevertheless, challenges – both regulatory and technical – remained.
On the technical side, for instance, Nestle has recently developed a 100% recyclable PET water bottle but the technology to recycle plastic sachets and laminates still does not exist. “Public-private partnerships are needed to solve this,” he said.
On the regulatory side, Vandewaetere said: “In some areas, such as nutrient profiling, we have for years been discussing where we could have been leading.”
One of Nestlé’s biggest frustrations is the fact that the rules are not always uniform within the single market. Differences in national approaches to food contact materials or vitamin thresholds, for example, make compliance difficult for food manufacturers and this needs to be addressed, he said.
EU regulations are 'a reflection of what EU consumers want'
Jülicher said she did not see regulations as an obstacle to innovation.
“In the EU we have food regulations that are a reflection of what EU consumers want. They want the certainty that food – even innovative food – is safe, and they want to be sure of that before the product is on the market.
“The type of regulation we have serves us very well for food safety, as a motor for economic growth and success and also as a kind of seal of approval for innovation.”
As to whether regulation “lags behind” innovation, Jülicher said it tended to be “informed by events”. In the wake of the horse meat scandal, focus turned to traceability and labelling, for instance.
Jülicher noted that regulators are involved in the NPD process very late when the product is ready and needs a safety assessment.
And while EU policy-making is not known for being particularly speedy, research and innovation projects can also take around five to eight years from pitch to product. This means it is possible to close any gaps between the two, she said.
'We need foresight'
“Regulation is willing to respond to the challenge and is there […] to support innovation but we need to know early on where it’s going and what the potential regulatory obstacles are.
“We need foresight from you, the industry, to know what you are working on. We aren’t going to put patents on your developments,” she added, pre-empting concerns over intellectual property.
Asked by a representative from Cargill which channels companies could use to provide this foresight, Jülicher said this could be informally (“take the initiative and write to us”) or through formal channels.
Head of the Commission’s agri-food chain unit Dr Barend Verachtert suggested companies go through the Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR), which has an increasing focus on food as well as farming, or the European Technology Platform.
Otherwise, companies could take a ‘safety by design’ approach and work with the regulatory framework in mind, Jülicher said. “Very often this will help speed up the time to market.”
With the REFIT check and Better Regulation communication, the EU is aiming for a regulatory framework that allow for innovation, giving general guidance rather than prescriptive detail, Jülicher said.
Engage civil society
According to Dr Marion Dreyer, deputy scientific director of the non-profit Institute for Communication and Cooperation Research, Dialogik, it is important to involve consumers in the process so their input is not just limited to “reactions to scandals”.
Dreyer noted six barriers to social engagement, including a perceived lack of relevance to their lives or the idea that some forms of engagement are mere box-ticking exercises, and Dialogik has developed a research tool to address these barriers.