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April 24, 2007

EU conference gazes into food industry’s future

Functional and healthy foods catering for clearly defined consumer groups, or even personalised individual diets, will be the staple fare of food companies in 2030, according to speakers at a conference organised by the European Commission last week. Philippa Jones attended the event and reports on the shape of things to come.

Functional and healthy foods catering for clearly defined consumer groups, or even personalised individual diets, will be the staple fare of food companies in 2030, according to speakers at a conference organised by the European Commission last week. Philippa Jones attended the event and reports on the shape of things to come.

Personalised diets will have replaced twentieth-century mass consumerism by 2030, according to speakers at the Perspectives for Food conference held by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research in Brussels earlier this month.

Experts from industry, academia and government suggested that, by 2030, new technology will allow food processors and suppliers to address the individual needs of all consumers.

Personal healthy diets based on an individual’s genetic make-up will create the food of tomorrow, according to Charles Daly, professor at the University College, Cork, Ireland. And this trend will in turn continue to fuel an 8% to 9% annual growth rate of the functional food sector, he added.

Daly claimed that food, instead of or in conjunction with traditional pharmaceutical products, will be able to prevent diseases such as obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis in adults and improve nutrition in unborn babies.

He called for an integrated European food and health programme to further the role of food in disease prevention and foster the creation of pleasurable, healthy, safe foods that are lower in fat than traditional fare and boast validated health claims.

Jean Martin, president of the CIAA, the confederation of EU food and drink industries, said that by 2030, “the food industry will be in a position to complement the pharmaceutical industry”. Producers will look at consumers as “narrowly defined groups with their own formulations and their own individual agenda”, Martin said.

Sounding a note of caution, however, was Esko Aho, president of the Finnish Innovation Fund. Aho argued that if Europe is to be in a position to respond to future challenges, it must increase its investment in innovation.
 
“Innovation is the transfer of knowledge to money,” Aho said. “It is not enough to be able to produce knowledge; we have to be able to commercialise this knowledge.” In addition to spending more money, European governments “must produce the right structure” to allow science to flourish, Aho asserted.

One problem raised by several delegates was the length of time it takes for companies to get approval for a new food in the EU compared to the US – on average 31 months compared to just three months across the Atlantic. This means that the most radical changes to the food industry are likely to happen outside the EU unless manufacturers are given more freedom to operate.

Martin said that despite certain problems, he believed Europe was “the most innovative food industry in the world”. This innovation was “driven by the consumer and the food industry’s understanding of what the consumer wants”, he claimed.

However, Ian Bretman, deputy director of the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK, questioned whether innovation was really being driven by the consumer, and how many projections for the future were in reality based on the industry’s perception of what consumers want rather than what is actually being demanded.

“The food industry will need to change (between now and 2030) but this change seems to revolve around food processing, science and technology,” said Bretman. “I think we need to make consumers the starting-point.”

He said that the response from the food industry to health problems was “to develop new products and to look at the symptom (of the problem)”. Bretman said that if food companies took consumers as the starting-point they would look instead at ways of making them aware of the root of the problem. And instead of creating new products, food producers “might have to accept the solution was selling fewer products with more value”, rather than more products with or without added value.

Edda Müller, executive director of the federation of German consumer organisations, suggested Europe’s consumers could be split into three categories.

Category one would include the 20% of people who are “motivated in egotistical terms by price, safety or public health”. The second category is another 20% who are motivated by “values” such as environmental issues, animal welfare, and regional or social considerations. The remaining 60% are “conformist” and allow themselves to be influenced by the behaviour of one of the previously mentioned categories, aspiring to belong to a niche group.

It is likely to be the third and largest group which will decide how Europe’s mainstream food sector will look in 2030, according to Müller. They may decide to follow an “egotistical” trend, whereby they want food suppliers to make them healthier, but they may equally decide to follow the fairtrade “value” customers.

Although Müller outlined three broad categories, she admitted that within each of these there was a multitude of trends followed by different consumers. This suggests that it will be a difficult, if not impossible, task to offer all groups a personalised diet choice.

Bretman said that education should be the key to the future of the food industry. Producers should not presume consumers want a personalised diet of healthy, diet-preventing food. “We have to build a dialogue with consumers, not just say something is good or bad, but look at individual purchases in a broader context,” he said. “Nothing is good or bad food…we mustn’t mislead people.”

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