East's research facilities now await western interest

1st April 2013

If western and eastern European countries are at either end of a geographic spectrum, then their approaches to food science and technology are also at different ends of a spectrum ­ that of education and research.

In the west, Britain's universities are under pressure to increase their own income as government support has been reduced. They have to encourage near-to-production research so they will appeal more to industry sponsors and can create revenue faster from licences and spin-off companies. But this must be reducing the amount of blue-sky, or new and pure research, that may not be commercially productive in its results, but which should be the unique selling point of a university.

In comparison, at the eastern end, universities are strongly supported by governments and research projects can aget in the way of teaching', according to Professor Veronika Abram, Head of Food Technology at Ljubljana University in Slovenia.

She says: "The priority in the university is the education of students and this takes up most of the staff's time. But research is still important and the university collaborates with research organisations in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the UK and the USA. We could arrange to take on more research projects in-house but this would probably mean outside personnel being brought in.“

And as the eastern European countries become more closely integrated with the EU, the difference in research outlook could prove significant. It is generally accepted that eastern European workforces are educated to a very high level and so, as more European funding is applied for, their more highly educated managers could make better use of that money than their western counterparts. The result in the long term can only be a stronger and more competitive food industry in eastern Europe.

In the short term, Professor Abram says that, during her travels, she finds that eastern universities are better equipped than their western counterparts but the difference is marginal. She says that typical projects the Food Technology Department at Ljubljana University has recently been involved in include research into yeasts; fruit and vegetable processing; microbiology; the chemical properties of natural food ingredients; and a physical and sensory evaluation of food ingredients.

State research

But universities do not have a monopoly in research and in Slovakia, the Food Research Institute (FRI) operates under the Ministry of Agriculture. Besides its food research, it also provides specialised professional and advisory services to the food industry. It is financed partially from the state budget, via national research and non-research projects, and partially from other sources such as international projects; laboratory analyses for industry; and professional, advisory and educational activities.

Dr Peter Simko, deputy director of FRI says: "The quality of research carried out by the Institute is comparable to that in western Europe. We have leading edge projects in such areas as microbiology, genetics, risk assessment, environmental protection and food composition databases. We also have a permanent programme of development of new food processing techniques, particularly in the isolation of natural food additives and their application in food processing.“

"Specific projects include the development of analytical methods to determine authentification and adulteration of foods; and the development of rapid methods for identifying pathogens on foods.“

In Hungary, the research focus is on food safety, and the challenges resulting from EU membership.

Dr Diana Banati, director-general of the Central Food Research Institute (K...KI), says: "One of the most important fields of consumer research coming now more and more into focus is the education of consumers to reduce the risks from food safety hazards.

"Hungary was first among the central and eastern European Countries to introduce into food economic research the socio-economic analyses that create a firm basis for the efficient application of risk analysis for the reduction of food safety risks. Since 2001 such investigations have been conducted at K...KI in several complex projects.

"Our primary objective now is to improve customer information through the National Food Safety Strategy Programme. The main issues in our analyses are related to the relevant questions of risk management and risk communication. The outcome will help consumers make informed food-buying decisions including the purchase of GMfoods. The initial project was carried out in cooperation with Dutch experts in the EU5th Framework Programme.

K...KI runs under the direction of the Ministry of Agricultural and Regional Development and employs some 120people. It is also working on projects in the latest EU6 Framework Programme.

Specialised research

Specific studies into food development are being carried out at the Institute of High Pressure Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (Unipress). Its mission is to use high pressure methods for advanced fundamental research and technology development. These have been developed in areas of mechanical and electronic engineering.

Professor Sylwester Porowski, director, says: "Food preservation using high pressure is a promising technique in food industry as it offers numerous opportunities for developing new shelf-stable foods with high nutritional value and excellent sensory characteristics. It is widely accepted that high pressure treatment is environmentally friendly and can retain the fresh characteristics of foods better than heat treatment.

"Fresh or minimally processed products, without additions of chemical preservatives, are increasingly preferred by consumers. One response to such a demand could be high pressure processing of foods. The resistance of microorganisms to pressure varies considerably depending on the pressure range applied, temperature and treatment duration and type of foods they inhabit.

"Early research covered the effects of high pressure on vegetative microorganisms and spores of chosen bacteria and moulds; selected strains of lactic acid bacteria; and pathogenic bacteria such as Yersinia and Listeria monocytogenes in meat, sliced ham and ripened cheeses. Later research included studies on quality and safety of high pressure processed fruit desserts, freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices, cheese and meat products.“

Practical applications

Dr Jacek Arabas, scientist at Unipress, says:

"High-pressure techniques have proved very revealing in biophysical studies leading to a number of successful biotechnological applications. The high-pressure tuning of kinetics of protein folding and misfolding allows one to explore protein structural states, which are otherwise experimentally inaccessible. Recently, we have opened a new laboratory devoted to high-pressure research on protein biophysics. A very important application of high-pressure is food processing.“

Now, Unipress licenses the designs of its food processing equipment and has sold machines to research organisations and companies around the world including Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the USA. The department does not manufacture equipment on an industrial scale but it is very keen to collaborate with companies that could do so. It is also very keen to pull in more research projects.

He considers students in eastern Europe to be very well educated, especially in the areas of physics, maths and chemistry. But, on the other hand, he says that state and industry support for research is low and inhibits the number of projects that can be undertaken. He also bemoans that, in general, only a few western European companies take advantage of their research facilities.

The centre offers a range of high-pressure equipment such as multivessel kinetic apparatus, batch units, low-temperature cells for phase transitions studies, vessels for optical, volumetric and electric studies, single- and multi-thermocouple pressure probes plus its wide experience in the field.





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