Scotland's University of Abertay Dundee yesterday launched a new food research unit aimed athelping small and medium sized manufacturers develop new products and processes.
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are more at risk of losing ground in the globalcompetition stakes due to their lack of funds and resources to conduct research and developmentcomparative to their larger rivals. In recent years the EU and member governments have been pushingprogrammes aimed at boosting the resources available to SMEs in a bid to help them compete on a morelevel stage.
The university said the dedicated technology transfer unit will offer academic and business expertise to companies looking to develop new, healthier products andexpand their markets. The unit will also help them gain access to new technologies and provide training.
Scottish Enterprise statistics indicate that there are about 1,600 food and drink sector workplaces inScotland. These employ 53,200 people - about 17 per cent of the total Scottish manufacturing workforce.
More than two out of three Scottish food and drink companies employ fewer than 50 people, and in Tayside both employment and export sales have been on a downward trend in recentyears, said industry expert Jennifer Bryson, who has joined Abertay to run the unit.
"The Scottish food industry is still very fragmented and lacks scale, making it harder than it need be to compete at European and worldlevel," she said. "Yet we have some of the world's finest food and drink products, and a strong track record of creativity and quality - all the ingredients for success, in fact."
The unit will offer consultancy and applied research in food and drink, particularly in the health andnutrition segment, she said. It will also help develop a network designed to bridge the gap between industry and academia so as to help moresmall and medium-sized enterprises in eastern Scotland expand their markets internationally.
"It will advise companies on how to use university food technology expertise better, how to be more creative with new product development, how to add value and how to extend shelf-life so as to open up markets further afield,"she said.
The main targets will be premium growth segments of the foodservice sector and value-added meal solutions within the retail sector.
Abertay's School of Contemporary Sciences includes a health and food sciences division staffed byfood technologists, microbiologists and chemists, among others. The university has degree programmes in food science and food productdesign.
The division already carries out a lot of consultancy and research work for the food and drinkindustry, Bryson noted.
Current research projects include the use of ultrasound for disinfecting water supplies to food and drink plants, working with major distillers on ways to prevent the counterfeiting of spirits, and new ways of using and controlling yeast in the food industry.
Academic staff involved in this research will support the new unit's work. Experts in food and consumer law and marketing from Abertay's Dundee BusinessSchool will also participate.
A survey last year by the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) found that food and drink SMEs are lagging behind in both innovation and investment in research and development.
The industry association said to remain competitive SMEs need more skilled workers, a greater emphasis on R&D, a pooling of innovation resources between companies and improved incentives.
The survey focused on the needs, expectations and evaluations of the various sectors operating under the umbrella of the food and drink industry across 11 EU countries. About 1,300 SMEs took part in the survey.
The 1,286 firms in the survey collectively had a turnover of €90bn, 744,000 employees, and spent €892m on R&D.