Forschungs- & Entwicklungsinformationsdienst der Gemeinschaft - CORDIS

Final Report Summary - SMES-NET (SMEs Networking European Food Safety Stakeholders)

Major research efforts into improving food technology often have priorities and objectives that do not address the concerns and needs of consumers and industry. This is because there is inadequate communication among food and beverage processors, consumers and researchers. Consequently, a large part of this research never actually ends up improving the products that people eat and drink.

The Food and drink (F&D) sector is one of the backbones of the European economy and will become even more important as enlargement progresses. This sector had a turnover of EUR 815 billion (14 % of the manufacturing sector's total) and, with a workforce of 4 million, was - and still is - the leading employer in the manufacturing sector.

As one of the most impressive logistical arrays connecting the end consumers with primary production, the European food chain is intrinsically linked with the global dynamic of providing raw materials for food mass production.

The F&D resources for the production, concept development, design and manufacture of foods make it the major global force. The fast changing environment of retailing and logistics is very often not under the control of the industry itself, although it profoundly affects its competitiveness.

The rapidly changing preferences of consumers favour an alert, flexible and competitive food sector. Important recent trends such as the expressed desire for healthy and safe food sit side-by-side with classical motivations for choice based on pleasure, culture, basic nutrition and 'tradition'. The European consumer is thus highly conscious of the great traditions of regional and national cuisines and products but at the same time asking new questions concerning food safety, long term health effects, sustainable production, social responsibility, animal welfare etc. Such concerns are choice-influencing motives for an increasing segment of consumers. Tradition can be used to add value to food products, but it is not an added value per se. Experience shows that the consumer's attitude to foods and beverages is far from static and that the 'unquestionable' attributes of a given food item, can change over time. Food manufacturers need to hear consumer's concerns and desires in the most precise and accurate manner possible.

Competitiveness requires access to cutting-edge science and the employment of the very best available technologies. Modern quality standards are a baseline, a licence to be in the marketplace, they do not bring competitiveness in themselves. Companies must be able to identify needs and desires and to conceive products and manufacturing processes before their competitors. Food producers are often convinced of the intrinsic quality of their products; many believe that food must remain the same and that only small incremental modifications are required. This attitude risks confining many producers to a circle of conservatism. There is a clear distinction between the aggressive modern companies and the traditional producers whose concept of food making is based on continuity with the past; it is no surprise that the former group are taking the lead.

It is clear that the F&D is sustained largely by Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and this partly explains the relative slowness with which innovation is pursued. However, the size of SMEs can also represent an advantage, in that radical redirectioning is more possible. The overall objective of the SMES-NET project was to identify a strategy for significantly improving the innovation behaviour of food SMEs. The generation and gathering of such high quality information obtained had permitted a strategy to be proposed for fostering the innovation capacity of the F&D SMEs.

In particular, this strategy was based in ten key theses:
1. Innovation behaviour is correlated with 'input factors': capacity, availability, and performance of Research and development (R&D) facilities of the company and quality and level of the human resources, which are most often related to the size of the firm.
2. The innovation behaviour of the food and drink companies goes well beyond ordinary R&D activities.
3. The percentage of particularly skilled elements in the workforce is a major determinant of innovative companies.
4. Companies are on-going innovators through time, especially through 'product' innovation activities, even more than 'process' innovation activities.
5. Companies consider that 'product design' is the most important category requiring development followed by 'manufacturing processes' and 'packaging'.
6. All pillars of European Technology Platform (ETP) 'food for life' are considered important by the majority of firms. However, issues about 'quality and manufacturing', 'food safety', and 'food and the consumer' are seen by far the most important ones; 'food and health', 'sustainable food production' and 'food chain management' are seen as slightly less important.
7. 'Best practices guides', 'training' and frequent 'seminars and conferences' activities are the most sought support actions for technology transfer. Financial shortage is the main factor that inhibits internal R&D in SMEs. Bureaucratic barriers are judged still to be too high.
8. Useful information for innovation mainly derives from market relations (clients, suppliers, equipment providers). Technology transfer bodies, trade associations and technical literature follow suit. For a majority of firms, innovation hinges upon internal R&D.
9. Food and drink companies have a sober and realistic attitude towards initiatives of support for the food industry. Opinions about future financing emphasize the preference for the European Union (EU) as a key funding partner. Preferred policy measures are those that exploit more opportunities for selective spending. Big firms are in favour of fiscal incentives, SMEs look for more direct support.
10. A promising policy of enhancing and supporting innovation in the food and drink sector should be based on a mix of actions inspired by the principles of 'soft' and 'targeted' policy making. This includes: sophisticated technology transfer, competence centres and networking programmes.

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