Amid the ongoing controversy over horsemeat being included in processed foods without consumer knowledge, it’s timely that a new institute for agrifood research on the island hsa opened at Queen’s University Belfast.
The Institute of Global Food Security will be involved in all aspects of the food supply chain, from the farm to the consumer’s fridge.
Much of the funding for the €40 million research institute has come from the university’s own resources, but there arealready strong links with industry, particularly with the lead private sector partner the Waters Corporation.
The firm specialises in the analytical tools needed for example to assess foodstuffs for chemical or bacteriological contamination and these will be used to good effect to create what Queen’s prosaically refers to as a “food fortress” that will protect the producer, the consumer and the companies from failures in the highly internationalised food chain.
The institute's director and the university's professor of food safety, Prof Chris Elliott, acknowledges the new research unit could not have come at a better time.
The horse meat scandal gave us a startling view into the complexities of a food supply chain that criss-crossed countries and continents. It also revealed the necessity for a higher degree of vigilance, the very thing that the institute hopes to provide, says Elliott.
"We need to give confidence to the consumer. We are lacking that at the moment," he says. "There is a dramatic loss of confidence in what we are eating across Europe. "
He and the 120 researchers already based in the institute will focus on the supply chain, finding ways to keep it safe but also to simplify it, he says.
“Food production is very complicated and incredibly competitive,” he says. Consumers and producers want low prices but also want safe food and this is the challenge that faces the institute.
“We will be looking at the total agrifood supply chain. Our objective is to track contamination in the food chain, bacteriological and chemical, as early as possible in the supply chain,” he says. This should help revive consumer confidence in what they see on plates placed before them.
He has a clear goal in pursuit of these ambitions. “We want to make this one of the top research centres for agriculture and food, the best in Europe. It is very much going to be hard science but we recognise the importance of field work,” he says.
While virologists will work on new bovine vaccine products in the lab, the institute will have a remit to field trial what it develops, maintaining the close links with agriculture.
Safety and nutrition
The institute is not starting from scratch. It grew directly from an earlier research unit established in 2006 by Elliott, the Institute of Agrifood and Land Use. This was the first of its kind in the UK and sought to "revitalise" food and agricultural science at Queen's, he says.
It started with just three researchers but grew over the years to include 30 full time academics, 30 post docs, 50 PhD students and technical staff.
From the beginning it was involved in food safety and nutrition. “These remain as core themes in our new institute,” he says. Also there will be animal health and welfare, food integrity and active research programmes in all aspects of the food production system.
The institute was launched by Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke, an appropriate choice for a number of reasons. Tesco is the largest customer for food producers on the island of Ireland, buying more than €1 billion of foodstuffs each year, Queen's points out.
His attendance also highlighted the strong industrial links that already exist with the previous institute and which will be carried forward in the new incarnation.
“We are very keen to link up with industry,” says Elliott. “We are very happy to work with companies on a one to one basis or on a sectoral basis or on a supply chain basis.”
The Waters Coprporation is a manifestation of the links given its major contribution of equipment installed in a new €3 million laboratory at the institute. It is based in the institute's temporary home until a purpose-built building comes ready in 2016, says Elliott.
So important is the connection that Waters decided to designate the institute as a “Waters Centre of Innovation”, one of only five worldwide, the university said.
Clearly the institute will also grow in the next few years as funding is applied to expand research activities. It is a highly interdisciplinary group, says Elliott with biochemists and microbiologists working with physicists and chemists.
He also expects Queen’s very strong engineering school to be plugged into the research taking place within the institute.
Some of the research at the institute involves developing fast tests to detect chemical or bacteriological contamination in food supplies and ingredients. These by their nature are near to market as products so industrial partnerships are a natural outcome, he says.
But researchers from the institute can also be deployed in response to specific food handling or processing problems arising within a single company.
This real-world engagement has another effect – increasing the supply of highly-trained graduates able to join food production companies based on the island of Ireland. This is already happening, with Queen's graduates working in companies such as the Kerry Group, Elliott says.
"This new institute will ensure that we can continue to recruit the best students into our food programmes, creating the food leaders of the future who have been trained in one of the world's best equipped research laboratories."
And the connections are also very strong with the Republic's lead agrifood research body, Teagasc. "We have really good links with Teagasc already and we would hope to expand these with the new institute," he says. "What Teagasc has is fantastic expertise in areas such as crop science and animal science."
The knowledge bases of the two bodies complement each other and can make agrifood research a key strength for the island as a whole.