On a flight to Dublin last weekend, headed for the International Union of Food Science & Technology (IuFOST), I found myself engrossed in an article about big brand redemption. In plain English, brands using their unique and vast capabilities for good.

 

One of the examples given was the Coca-Cola Company and how, thanks to an idea from a social entrepreneur who developed a packet of medicine that fitted neatly into the gaps in a crate full of Coke bottles, the company is using its distribution network in rural Africa to deliver essential medicines to hard-to-reach areas of the population.

 

The question on my lips, reading this, was: why wait for a social entrepreneur to come up with this simple yet genius idea?… With scale comes responsibility, so why not take proactive action?

 

Rising numbers of people feel increasingly guilty about the negative impacts of their consumption and they’re on the look-out for brands that will ease their guilt.

 

If we take a look at the food sector, I learned from IuFOST that food manufacturers are stealing a march in this space. An industry awash with issues – from food waste through to sugar, salt and sat fats – calls for forward-thinking.

 

Below is my pick of the top three innovative approaches being adopted and developed across the food manufacturing industry, designed to both satisfy the consumer and industry’s own societal responsibilities:

 

  1. Reducing food waste: where does responsibility lie: consumer focus or technology intervention? A team at Newcastle University has been researching at what point during the food chain new technologies need to be introduced to help reduce waste. The key out-take was that technologies need to be co-created from the very earliest stages of development and it is the responsibility of food companies to involve consumers so that they buy into them and for them to become publicly acceptable. If you think about GM and why it is shunned by consumers today, you could argue it’s because they were never given the opportunity to have a say in the process and found out about it too late in the day, causing fear. Ultimately, this research concluded that tackling food waste relies on industry harnessing technological interventions that are in-line with consumer desire and demand.

 

  1. Extracting value from food waste: whether extracting value from under-used biomass e.g. animal feed or utilising a product’s by-products, it would appear this is a trend that’s fast-becoming mainstream across the food production industry. Take for example the State of California’s approach to olive oil production. Responsible for 99% of olive oil production in the USA, and driven by the belief that ‘with scale comes responsibility’, a team of researchers has been exploring the potential uses of the pomace extracted from the olives that, to-date, has been disposed of. A great source of fibre, the pomace is now being added to various cereal grain flours, specifically pasta. They’ve found that a) it can be done, b) it doesn’t change the taste, c) it increases the amount of fibre in the pasta and d) it’s a clever way of not wasting the pomace.

 

  1. Sustainable and innovative packaging: a hot topic at IuFOSt and a lot of fascinating work going on in this area. Some of the most interesting work I heard about is being pioneered by a project called NOAW (No Agricultural Waste). The programme focuses on unlocking the potential of agro waste and converting it into eco-efficient and / or bio-eco materials that can be used as packaging. Basically, this is all about the circular economy concept, where there is zero (or very little) waste and where materials are either composed of biological nutrients designed to re-enter the biosphere safely or are composed of so-called technical nutrients which are restorative and regenerative by design.

 

Another big area of R&D is intelligent packaging e.g. RFID sensors on food labels to help manufacturers correctly estimate what the use-by date on products should be. Currently, it is estimated that 20% of food waste results from poor use-by labelling, some of which is down to consumer confusion, but much is because of mislabelling in the first place.