Business the LFC way

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Business the LFC way
There is more going on behind the scenes at the London Food Centre than you might imagine. Rebecca Green discovers what it has to offer the food industry

The students might have enjoyed a nice long break from the London South Bank University this summer, but that doesn't mean work at its London Food Centre (LFC) ground to a halt. Far from it in fact; for while the food courses and training are integral to the centre, they are not its sole offering. There are actually four main branches to the centre: training and skills; consultancy and advice; research; and hub activities.

Its emphasis is on a broad interdisciplinary approach, rooted in food manufacturing, which, it points out, is unlike the food divisions of many other universities where agriculture, food microbiology or food chemistry tend to dominate. The centre's philosophy is 'to service the industry in the widest possible sense by supplying highly competent recruits, high quality consultancy and research, and relevant and practical training'.

In terms of training and courses, the university offers a range including: BSc (Hons) Food and Nutrition, BSc (Hons) Food Design and Technology, Food Combined Honours Field, FdSc Foundation Degree in Culinary Art, BSc (Hons) Applied Science, Applied Science Foundation, MSc Food Safety and Control and MSc Nutrition, Health and Lifestyle. LFC also offers short courses in areas such as food hygiene and hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP), which are suited to workers already in the food industry.

Gateway

Set up by the government in 1998 as one of six UK food technology transfer centres, it aims to provide a 'gateway' for small and medium sized businesses to access its 'food manufacturing expertise', which is provided by two full-time food technologists and a range of lecturers, most of whom have worked in the industry. LFC has particular expertise in ready meal production; supply chain management; new product development; bakery production and technology; and sensory and nutritional evaluation.

"We are trying to open the door to businesses, but it's also a way of the university making money," explains Sheila Grace, business manager at LFC, which is now self-sustaining, not government funded. The link with companies also works well when it comes to the students needing to develop experience in the industry, she adds.

There are different levels to the consultancy service, says Grace, with the most basic being for companies to ring up and get advice over the phone or have a simple query answered. "This information flow can then develop into small or large projects," she says. "For instance, if a start-up company came to us for advice or help, we would ask them to come in for a focus interview, which they would pay a nominal amount for. They get to ask all their questions, get their priorities in order and then go away with the answers. After that, they can, if they want, make a contract with the university for consultancy work, where they pay a larger fee." However, as most small companies don't have the money for that, the centre also seeks out any grants that might be available to them.

In the last year LFC has worked with seven companies, which it has helped to get grants, and a further seven that have set up and funded consultancy agreements. It has also carried out 12 focus interviews.

"We try and get companies to commit to a retainer, where they pay an up front payment every year, then can call on the expertise of the university whenever they need to," explains Grace. "We are effectively offering them a carrot. It's an experiment that we initiated this year with a company that had previously done a successful consultancy."

Networking

But it's no good having so much to offer if your target audience isn't aware of what you do, so how does the centre attract its clients? One way is through the short courses, which often generate work for the centre's consultancy service. There is also a strong emphasis on holding events and workshops at the university and on the importance of networking. However, when it comes to research, Grace feels the centre is not yet realising its potential and suggests a less reactive approach is needed. "Some of the smaller consultancies have come in to use the kitchen and do trials, and we also have a couple of people doing PhDs in food, but we've got to try and be more innovative," she says.

This could be through grant applications with research councils, for instance, says Grace. "We need to be selling some of the knowledge that we have generated. It would be great to have more than two research students." Work is also being done to establish more events and industry collaborations, although the centre already networks with a number of organisations across London to form short and long-term partnerships.

It is involved with the London Technology Network (LTN), which led to the university becoming the first and only one to have a food technology fellow (assigned person). The fellow was able to map the centre's expertise, which was then held on the LTN's network so that if a company went to the LTN looking for expert help in food manufacturing, the LTN could put them in touch with the centre.

A partnership also exists with the London Manufacturing Advisory Service, which provides another source of clients for the centre's consultancy work.

But perhaps one of its most successful areas is that of knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs). Indeed, the university's Centre for Knowledge Transfer has become the leading KTP partner in the Greater London area and is by far the largest provider of KTP schemes to the food industry.

There is no question that the centre has a great deal to offer the food and drink industry. It's just up to the companies themselves to make the most of it. FM

For more information on the London Food Centre, its courses or consultancy services, telephone 020 7815 8132 or go to http://www.londonfood.org.uk

Firms get up to speed with health and safety

The health and safety arena can sometimes seem like a minefield, especially to small businesses, but help is at hand, in the form of auditor Efsis's Health and Safety service.

"[Health and safety] is a terribly complicated subject with over 400 pieces of UK legislation to observe and severe penalties if you get it wrong," says Efsis food director Carole Payne. Which is where the Efsis bespoke food industry standard comes in. Unlike other audits, it is compliance, not points based. It recently came to the aid of UK meat processor Anglo Beef Processors (ABP), which had gone through a massive investment programme to raise output fast, and needed to ensure its health and safety standards kept pace.

Richard Dilworth, group health and safety advisor at ABP, says: "Most other audits are scored audits, where aspects of the operation are weighted according to what is seen as a priority. With a compliance audit [like this], everything is looked at. A points system tends to let things get overlooked. You can get a high score and still be illegal."

Dr James Gibson, the Efsis inspector who worked with ABP, agrees. "All the other standards are numerical, but this one is compliance based. If you get an 85% pass [as with other standards] it could be the 15% that kills someone. But working on a compliance basis gives a much more objective test. It's much more black and white," he says.

The system is constantly being adapted to cover any changes in the law. "A lot of companies can get bogged down with the law and have trouble focusing on what is important to them," says Gibson. "Some companies don't have the time to comply, others tend to over-react and comply in the wrong direction, spending a lot of money doing things they don't really need to."

The Efsis system is a way of helping companies bring health and safety under control in a more focused manner, he adds, and can also have a positive effect on insurance premiums. "It shows insurers that you're serious about staff safety."

For more information on the standard go to http://www.efsis.com

Related topics: People & Skills

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