Consumer needs drive innovation in food sector

The innovation challenge facing the EU’s food industry, which consists mainly of SMEs, will be to tailor products and services to changing environmental and consumer needs.

The ‘Perspectives For Food 2030’ conference taking place on 17-18 April brings together different food-sector stakeholders as well as economists and consumer- behaviour scientists to assess how the food industry and consumer demand may evolve by 2030 and how this may affect food research.

“Food is not just about what we put on our plates. It influences many other areas, such as the environment, health and the economy,” said Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, emphasising the need to examine the research needs of the complete food chain. “This means opening up to other disciplines by involving converging technologies, such as neurosciences, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. Learning from other disciplines can mean productivity gains and energy savings,” he added.

The food industry is the EU’s leading manufacturing sector in terms of turnover, employment and number of companies, but the industry spends far less in research than the United States or Japan. This is mainly due to the fact that 99% of some 283,000 European food companies are SMEs which cannot devote extensive time nor resources to often lengthy research processes.

“Innovation in the food industry will depend to a large extent on these SMEs,” said Poto?nik, calling for more private investment in food R&D and encouraging small companies to profit from the improved conditions for participation for SMEs in the EU’s Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7) to conduct R&D.

According to Esko Aho, former prime minister of Finland and chairman of the report on ‘Creating an innovative Europe’ (2006), Europe’s problem is its lack of tools to promote innovation, namely lack of venture capital. With regards to food, he believes that the European food sector needs to create a new comparative advantage to compete with, for example, Asia.

“The source of this comparative advantage will not be more R&D, new applications or informed consumers alone, but the combination of these three,” argued Aho, underlining the importance of providing consumers with all the necessary information for them to make the right choices. Aho also thinks that the major challenge for the EU’s food sector will be to adjust the products and services to both a changing environment and consumer needs.

According to a recent industry trends report, it is mainly pleasure, health, fitness, convenience and ethics that drive innovation in the food sector.

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