View from the bridge

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Lfr, Food

View from the bridge
Since I last interviewed chief executive Paul Berryman in January 2008, the name of the member-based organisation he heads up has changed. It is now Leatherhead Food Research (LFR) rather than Leatherhead Food International. But, more importantly, he has now had the opportunity to embed his planned structural changes. He now sees LFR as an effective bridge between academia and industry.

When I met him recently, he was with his new chairman, Geoff Spriegel, appointed in July to help drive LFR to its next stage of development.

Spriegel brings extensive scientific and technical expertise to the role, as well as a wealth of contacts acquired through years of working in food manufacturing and retail sectors globally.

As well as his consultancy work, Spriegel was most recently director of British Retail Consortium Global Standards & Technical Services. He was also technical director for Sainsbury and, before that, held technical positions at both Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) and St Ivel/Unigate.

LFR is responding to the rapidly changing world by concentrating on areas of expertise and specialism that will differentiate it from the laboratory crowd, which offer routine microbiological testing.

"We knew that stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap routine testing wasn't our forte," ​says Berryman. "What it was, was doing the more detailed, complicated research. This fitted well with our up-skilling initiative; bringing in more talented people and then doing the more complicated work."​ was

Berryman and Spriegel are both confident that the new direction will help LFR through the tough times ahead. "In times of challenge the best thing to do is focus on quality," ​remarks Spriegel. "The quality of our people is right, so we are in a good position to provide the quality of service to sustain us through tough times."​ But he is also clear that, rather than focusing on research out of intellectual curiosity, it will be crucial for LFR to prioritise the needs of the food industry.

Profile raising

"Although we have the right people in place and the right strategy, I think there is a lot of work that really needs to be done as far as the profile of some of the work we do within LFR," ​remarks Spriegel. "We haven't been as good at engaging with industry on some of the things that we do we need to identify where problems are in industry and gain a reputation for solving industry's problems."

Following a period of restructuring and refocusing its activities on added-value member services, LFR's turnover is now around £9.5M, compared with £11M in 2007/8, but its profits are at £250,000. "We've made profits four years in a row,"​ Berryman reports, with obvious satisfaction. It has 1,500 members – 50% overseas now compared with around 1,000 two years ago – which contribute £2M to its coffers.

LFR now has 150 staff, compared with just under 200 back then. But under Berryman's stewardship it has made a number of key appointments to ensure it has the cutting edge leadership it needs to take it forward in areas such as regulatory services, nutrition, sensory science and food safety the latter, an area where Spriegel's strong credentials will inevitably be brought to bear.

"What I did was flatten out the organisation and take out a whole tier of directors,"​ says Berryman. "And then put in place a larger team of department heads."

He adds: "The areas that have really grown are sensory, nutrition, regulatory those are the star things. And then things like innovation and the more traditional food technology projects. What we've found is we are doing more smaller projects rather than the big blockbusters."

In the food safety arena, Berryman notes that LFR has decided to specialise in niche areas of expertise, such as the use of natural antimicrobials, working with other organisations such as Kew Gardens on the application of natural plant extracts. Such ingredients remove the need for artificial preservatives and help firms develop 'clean-label' profiles for their products.

As luck would have it, a large fire at LFR a few years back provided the opportunity to redirect activities in, for example, the field of nutrition.

"Rather than rebuilding a big chemistry lab, we launched a new 400m2 nutrition centre,"​ says Berryman. "It is pretty much fully booked well into next year. Big firms and SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises] are getting us to do human studies to support health claims."​ But LFR has also invested around £1M in the latest liquid chromatography mass spectrometry chemical analysis kit for identifying contaminants in food.

The decision by European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA's) panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) to reject swathes of nutrition and health claim dossiers submitted by food and drink companies has provided a spur for LFR activity in the health and nutrition field. LFR is now working with many firms either to submit or re-submit dossiers or look at other ways of ensuring product differentiation in the crowded food market through "consumer preference claims". "The consumer insight area has probably doubled its activities over the last 12 months,"​ reports. Berryman.

Certainly, EFSA has not won many fans in the industry by the high level of proof it has required for health claims. "We would be the first to say: 'Yes, you need robust science before you can make a claim,' no doubt about it,"​ says Berryman. "But do you really need to use pharmaceutical standards in the food industry? We think you probably don't."

As well as its central research projects, the bulk of LFR's research income is derived from contracts with individual companies, such as Danisco, which it worked with on its Litesse satiety product; and with Nestlé on the growth potential of salmonella in chocolate.

One new area of research activity is in identifying different 'biomarkers' as a measure of the efficacy of certain ingredients in improving health within an essentially healthy population. The project, just launched in conjunction with Kings College London, will investigate the effects of wholegrain on cardiovascular health, using a novel technique that assesses the "stretchiness of your vein" ​as an indicator of cardiovascular health. LFR hopes to report on the results of this work sometime next year, said Berryman.

Going forward, Spriegel sees greater opportunities for attracting business from overseas, particular in Europe and US where the introduction of the Food Safety Modernization Act in January this year is expected to create new opportunities, says Spriegel. There is also potential for further growth on the regulatory side, claims Berryman. "We have actually got plans to expand that even further so that we are doing more complicated work and horizon scanning on legislation," he says.

Related topics: NPD

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