It is said that the Dutch have embarked on more revolutions than any other nation in Europe. Now, with the help of some pretty powerful food companies, they're busy plotting more in the futuristic 'Food Valley' near Wageningen.
A hub of commercially driven research and development (R&D), where the 'white coat' science of nutrigenomics and nanotechnology shares project space with problems in pig farming and long-life tomatoes, Food Valley is believed to be the world's largest concentration of organisations engaged in food and process design, employing around 10,000 people.
This December, the cluster of research institutes, food and ingredients companies and experimental facilities, will be swelled by the arrival of a production, process and marketing innovation centre for DMV International, the ingredients arm of Dutch-owned Campina, which already runs a consumer development facility in Food Valley.
Lex van Moorsel, communications manager for DMV, which recently launched Textrion Ice, an ingredient that opened up the possibility of being able to squeeze ice cream from your freezer at -18°C, says Holland is a natural home for pioneering new technology.
"Our dairy technology has quite a reputation world-wide. It was an important technology around which several others have developed," he says.
And it's true that, if you look back into their history, many of today's most innovative Dutch-owned companies, including Campina and Friesland, have a whiff of the cow shed about them, but it's also significant that both the Dutch government and the Dutch food industry attach a high priority to R&D. As a nation, it claims to spend more per capita on blue sky thinking than the Japanese or the Americans, at 2% of the prodigious Dutch food sector's euro 39bn turnover.
And it's not hard to see why. As a net exporter of food, which ships out almost half of its production, The Netherlands food industry needs to stay ahead of the game.
Jacqueline Castenmiller, policy and research officer for Wageningen Centre for Food Sciences, an alliance of government, industry and research, which has coordinated three programmes on nutrition and health, structure and functionality and microbial functionality and safety, since 1997, says the Dutch learned early on that collaboration was key.
"All our work is driven by food companies. They realised they could not be innovative enough on their own, so they had to join forces. It's also very expensive. I think in the beginning they did not understand they had to share -- but we have made real progress, particularly in the area of nutrigenomics."
The largest project of its kind in the world, The Nutrigenomics Consortium, counts Unilever and DSM among its lead partners and goes to the heart of Europe's health debate. The six-year study brings human and food sciences together in trying to decode the body's molecular signals and come up with "smart" food that regulates calorie release. It's an attempt to burst the obesity bubble that threatens further European-wide regulation of the food industry and holds out the possibility of being able to reverse the early stages of serious diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes.
Project leader Professor Michael Müller says firms must do more than just tinker with texture and taste. "If they really want to add a new quality to their food they need long-term development. There is still a lot more research needed to establish the right ratio between food components, but there may be first examples of food made with this knowledge in the next couple of years," he says.
More controversial is work being carried out by Wageningen University on nanotechnology. The science of the infinitely small could spark a backlash as big as genetic modification (GM), warns bio-nanotechnology programme manager Frans Kampers. With around 200 companies worldwide already engaged in nano-food research in a market expected to be worth $20.4bn by 2010, Kampers believes scientists and food processors need to be transparent about the risks and benefits of using nanotechnology to deliver medicines and nutrients.
Müller agrees. "People have to believe in the results -- we have to be able to show that something is healthy." Despite their conservative reputation, the Dutch are unlikely to be fazed by such designer diets.
According to John Schilder, senior consultant with Food from Britain (FfB) The Netherlands, foreign manufacturers perceive them as being "environmentalistic and rigid"
"This is certainly not the case," says Schilder. "An example is GM. Although the Dutch government stimulated consumers to take part in a national debate, the interest in participating was very low."
He says most consumers are happy to put their trust in supermarkets, which , with a weak convenience store channel, account for 80% of food, drink and tobacco sales.
"Research conducted by our office showed that Dutch consumers -- more than consumers in other markets -- very much rely on retailers taking decisions for them concerning the production and background of food products. If it's sold in a supermarket then there is no threat."
With a focus on convenience, health and single portions, The Netherlands food market apes that of the UK in many respects, but potential exporters should be wary of treating the Dutch as Brits with funny accents.
David Lindgrem, commercial controller for Britvic, who steered the successful launch of Robinson's FruitShoots in The Netherlands two years ago, and won the FfB Drinks Exporter of the Year 2004 award for his efforts, says the market differs in subtle ways.
"The Dutch shop far more frequently than we do -- as many as three or four times a week rather than once. And our research indicates that they are far more price aware -- certainly now, when Dutch retailers are going through a price war."
That said, Britvic's experience shows they are prepared to pay a premium for products with a distinct unique selling point, particularly those targeted at the children's market and in the growing areas of organic, meat replacement, low carb, free range and functional.
In the past three years, premium UK manufacturers, including Kettle Foods, Eat Natural, and Dairy Crest with its chilled drink Frijj, have all found space on the shelves of Holland's five main retailers, led by Albert Heijn. And there's plenty of room for more, according to Schilder.
"More than in the UK, products are evaluated on the revenue per square centimetre. Each product is valued on its contribution and will be replaced if another offers a better margin. A listing always means a delisting of another product. Qualitative research is therefore a good tool in convincing a buyer that there is no threat in replacing a competitive product and that his shoppers are willing to buy it at a certain price."
Although The Netherlands is Britain's fifth largest food and drink export market in Europe, says the FfB, UK manufacturers need to do more glad handing.
"Opportunistically picking up the phone to arrange a meeting to 'just discuss opportunities' will work. Treat buyers and category managers in the same way as your Tesco contact," is Schilder's advice. FM
Food Manufacture's Guide to The Netherlands
Smaller than Scotland, The Netherlands pumps out a staggering euro 40.3bn in agricultural products - just over 10% of GDP - and euro 39bn in food, drink and tobacco.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): euro 445bn
Agri-food value: euro 40.3bn
Food, drinks, tobacco value: euro 39bn
Main export markets: 80% of exports go to European Union 15.
Germany is largest trading partner
Principal food exports: Meat, dairy products, vegetables, processed foods, cereal products and starch
Principal food imports: Fruit, nuts & spices, meat, dairy products, coffee, tea and cocoa
Gross export value: euro 47bn
Gross import value: euro 27bn
All figures based on 2003 Facts & Figures of the Dutch Agri-sector 2004/5