Prof. Elliott (l) with Tesco CEO Philip Clarke (c) and Queens University Belfast vice-chancellor Prof. Sir Peter Gregson at launch of institute

Prof. Elliott (l) with Tesco CEO Philip Clarke (c) and Queen's University Belfast vice-chancellor Prof. Sir Peter Gregson at launch of institute

A new food research institute was launched at Queen's University in Belfast this month with a broad remit covering areas such as food security, crop productivity, food safety and integrity and dietary health - and a clear mission to work closely with food companies. Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security, spoke with Ben Cooper about the institute's work and in particular the lessons industry can learn from the horsemeat scandal.

Food security, diet and health, food safety and integrity, reformulation, traceability, supply chain complexity - it is frighteningly apparent that, wherever one looks at the moment, the global food sector faces daunting questions. 

An opportune moment perhaps for the launch of a new academic institution aimed at tackling precisely these types of challenging issues.

Professor Chris Elliott, who heads up the recently launched Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen's University in Belfast, believes it will be a key resource for the international food business as it grapples with questions that speak fundamentally to the direction of the industry and its relationship with its customers, consumers and the planet.

The close rapport the IGFS is seeking to foster with industry was readily apparent at the launch event held earlier this month, which included a round-table discussion where key representatives of the Northern Ireland food manufacturing sector met with Tesco CEO Philip Clarke.

"The launch was very, very industry-focused," says Elliott. "What we are trying to do is to build partnerships with industry."

As a Northern Ireland institution, developed with investment from Queen's University of GBP33m, the IGFS values its links with local food manufacturing. 

The agri-food sector in Northern Ireland accounts for one in six people employed in the private sector. While most manufacturing industries in the region are struggling, the agri-food sector "is doing very well and looking to expand dramatically", Elliott points out, and the IGFS wants to "help support that expansion".

However, he sees the institute playing a broader role in the food industry globally. "Certainly our aspirations are to be internationally recognised as a centre of excellence," Elliott says.

Moreover, with Northern Ireland exporting around 80% of the food it produces, Elliott believes the IGFS's location places it in an excellent position to understand the pressures of modern food supply chains. "Where Northern Ireland sits in a supply chain we're actually right in the middle of it," he explains, "because we import millions of tonnes of raw materials and we export millions of tonnes of processed materials. So we have a very good handle on the issues in relation to how complex food supply is now."

Of course, there is no issue more contentious right now than supply chain complexity and traceability.

Elliott believes the horsemeat scandal has served as a salutary lesson for the food industry and that it was "just by luck" that the fraud involved represented, as far as we know, no danger to human health. 

"Those people who conduct fraud don't give any thought to the individuals who suffer because of the skullduggery that goes on. So we were lucky because the widespread fraud was uncovered in something that wasn't detrimental to health as far as we know at the minute. I think if there were any food safety impacts we probably would have known about them by now."

Elliott sees the issue as one of process on the part of retailers rather than policy. Gaining a supply contract with a multiple retailer is known to be "one of the most daunting tasks you will ever face because of the rigour of their contracts", but he has been aware "for a long time" that verification of compliance was nowhere near as exacting. "You can have the tightest contract in the world but if nobody verifies it how do you know those standards are actually being met."

In the wake of the scandal, Elliott believes there are two possible ways forward for the industry, either to keep supply chains as they are and face a nigh impossible task of monitoring them or simplify them. Monitoring would still be required but "would be on a smaller scale because there are fewer critical steps in the pathway".

Elliott senses retailers are erring towards the latter. "They believe their supply chains have become way way too complicated and realise themselves that they cannot scrutinise those supply chains to the extent that would be required".

However, he warns that after moving away from local agriculture, multiple retailers cannot expect an instant response and must show commitment to enable farmers to invest.

"It's not just like turning on a water tap. It takes years of investment. The retailers will have to enter into extremely long-term contracts for them [farmers] to have the confidence to invest in growing their businesses again."

Such a shift would also inevitably impact on food prices, Elliott says, as in many ways "we are now paying the price for cheap food". With the tightening and shortening of supply chains, "I can't see any way that food prices won't increase," Elliott warns, even though he observes that retail CEOs tend to be "coy" about conceding that reality.

While clearly very open to collaboration with industry, Elliott appears at ease with delivering uncomfortable truths.

And while forging such links may be critical for funding reasons, Elliott sees the interface with industry as having a positive impact on the nature and quality of the research.

"It's been one of the criticisms of academic life that we sit in our laboratories and research centres and do very nice work but apart from getting it published in nice journals nothing actually ever happens to it," he says. "The institute will be carrying out a range of research, some of it will be quite fundamental, some of it will be applied, we would tend to describe that as translational research. So what we do we hope will be taken up by industry."

Given its broad remit, which extends from food security and crop productivity to farm animal health, food safety and integrity, product innovation and diet and health, the IGFS will find itself at the heart of some fierce debates within the sector and between industry and other stakeholders.

Elliott believes this is exactly where it should be. Indeed, he is not only happy for the institute to participate "but actually to lead the debates as well." 

Scientific research, and in particular the endorsement by academic experts of an industry or campaigner viewpoint, often figures prominently in such debates, and some campaigners voice concerns academic objectivity can be compromised - or at least be brought into question - as the result of close links with and patronage from industry.

Elliott has little truck with such arguments. "That danger I think is generally a fallacy." Rather than providing ready legitimacy for the corporate sector in return for patronage, the links academe can foster with industry allow academic institutions to act as a "voice of independence", he says.

"My job is really to promote the linkages with industry and I have been working at it hard for quite a number of years now. If I see something bad they know I will be the first person to say it and I also think industry see that as being a great strength."

Moreover, in fiercely contested debates, Elliott believes an academic institution can act as an "honest broker" that can "see things from both sides and help them come to some kind of resolution".

Next year, the IGFS plans to host a symposium on the use of GM in Northern Ireland. In terms of its aspiration to act as a qualified moderator in fiercely disputed debates, Elliott and his team do not lack for ambition.