A gaggle of 20 excited science teachers surrounds Kaarin Goodburn, who is handing out free stick-on tattoos. She’s trying to raise the profile of the food industry and the Chilled Food Association (CFA), which she’s been the director of for the past seven years.
We’re at the Association for Science Education’s (ASE’s) annual exhibition at Reading University. It’s the only time the CFA director could meet, and her stand – the only food industry-related one – is a hit with the crowd.
Goodburn, who describes herself as a food safety geek, is eager to get those teachers visiting the stand to use food in their science lessons. For her, it’s the only way school children will learn that a career in food can be more than just being a chef or working in catering, she says.
“Food should be used in every lesson at school, but especially in science,” she tells the teachers. “Everything you learn in science can be related to food – ‘what’s the chemistry of toasting bread?’” she shouts to one teacher.
When Goodburn was at school there was no question about her career choice, and she says: “I was always interested in science and had a very inquisitive Mum and Dad. I always knew what I wanted to do and was interested in chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology.”
It was her Mum who helped her decide that a career in food was the best route to take, she explains. While studying for a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Manchester, Goodburn was accepted onto both a toxicology and a food science MSc at the University of Leeds in her third year. “Mum said people always need to eat, so there’s always going to be a career. She said I didn’t want to get stuck in a lab in a white coat.”
Early career (Return to top)
Her Mum’s instinct paid off; Goodburn was soon working on Leatherhead Food Research’s technical help desk for science and nutrition after completing her MSc in food science.
While in that role, she worked closely with the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and managed to secure a job with the Seasoning and Spice Association (SSA), which is a member of the FDF. It was in her role with the SSA that she helped found the CFA.
“The FDF was starting this chilled thing and they knew that I had an MSc in food science. I thought it all sounded very interesting because listeria had cropped up as a big issue in the UK the year before in 1988.”
More than 350 cases of listeria-related food poisoning cases were reported in 1988 and associated with pâté. Over 90 people died as a result of the contamination.
At the request of the government, a group of scientists was put together to create a set of standards for the chilled food industry to help prevent another listeria incidence, says Goodburn, who ended up heading the group.
“I was working in the FDF and set up the new chilled food standards. We then had a ministerial launch of the CFA in 1989 and within months of me being at the FDF I was working for the CFA,” she adds. “The thing just grew and gained momentum and the standards we created grew.”
The CFA guidelines and accreditation scheme that followed formed the backbone of third-party auditing in the UK chilled food manufacturing sector, she says.
Chilled food sector growth (Return to top)
At that time, the UK’s chilled food sector was worth just £500M a year and consisted mainly of coleslaw, potato salad, basic sandwiches and some chilled pastas.
The sector is now much more complex and consists of ready meals, cooked and cured meats and many other products that would have been alien to 1980s UK supermarkets, she says. “It’s also worth £11bn a year; is growing between 3% and 4% annually; and consists of 20 segments.”
But, such growth has brought with it numerous food safety threats, Goodburn adds and refers to a deadly-sounding list of bacteria to highlight the risks: “Psychrotrophic botulinum, Clostridium botulinum (C.botulinum), listeria and Bacillus cereus.”
In a move to reduce the risk Goodburn gathered academics and industry experts together in a collaborative venture to develop a revolutionary new approach to shelf-life extension in 2012. Yet, the approach they came up with wasn’t only beneficial to shelf-life extension, it also provided manufacturers with a much gentler heating process, she adds.
By using a low-heat process offered by the Sustainable Shelf-Life Extension (SUSSLE) One project, developed by the CFA and industry experts, the organoleptic qualities of foods are retained, says Goodburn.
Currently, to have an 10-day shelf-life, manufacturers must heat food to a temperature of 90°C for 10 minutes to ensure that C.botulinum is killed.
SUSSLE (Return to top)
However, processors using the SUSSLE system can achieve a safe shelf-life at a temperature of between 70°C and 90°C, which improves the quality of a product, as heating at a lower temperature reduces flavour loss.
While Goodburn is willing to discuss the basics of SUSSLE, she is reluctant to go into the finer details of the two-part project for reasons of commercial confidence for those involved. “SUSSLE One completed three years ago at a cost of £750,000 and we wanted to extend the volume of product it could be applied to in the industry,” she explains.
“We needed another project to pick that up and look in more detail at Bacillus cereus, so that’s when SUSSLE Two came in, which cost £532,000,” she says. “We managed to achieve what we wanted from SUSSLE One and Two and it’s unlikely we'll need to do a third round of research as a result.”
The benefits were well worth the money too, she says. “I am aware of one site that could save the amount it cost to carry out the two projects in one year, but that’s all I can tell you,” she teases.
And that is all Goodburn is prepared to say on SUSSLE until access is made available to the whole industry commercially on January 2018, she says. “Everybody is wedded to the 10-day rule and it takes a lot to move people away from that and make them feel as safe. But our research shows SUSSLE is certainly safer than the current recommended approach and can go beyond the 11-day rule.”
But, how long does it extend shelf-life by a week, more than a week, less than a week? She won’t say, “but I can tell you it’s worth having those extra days”.
As the industry awaits the finer details of SUSSLE to be revealed, Goodburn is eager to point out other problems on the horizon.
Since the horsemeat scandal in 2013 – which hit the chilled food sector – the industry has become more sensitive to fraud and trying to detect it, she says.
However, the chilled food industry considers itself unfairly criticised over horsemeat. It didn’t suffer any positive contamination results, “apart from one product [Asda’s bolognese sauce], which turned out to be an inaccurate result because of poor lab practices”, claims Goodburn. The sector was a victim of failings in the frozen food sector, she adds.
Because of the nature of the chilled food sector – “everything is fresh” – the whole supply chain has to be closely monitored, “which is a massive amount of effort”, she says. “We don’t know how watertight the chilled supply chain is, but it’s always been closely monitored to ensure the freshness of products.”
Supermarket price wars (Return to top)
Supermarket price wars are another area Goodburn believes to be a threat to the sector. Cost-cutting prevents manufacturers from investing in their factories, which can stop them from developing their food hygiene measures further, she says. “It’s not the sort of industry that has time to waste when it comes to developing its food safety practices.
The more money that can be spent by chilled food manufacturers on extending the shelf-life of foods during manufacture the better,” she adds.
Finally, like others in the food and drink manufacturing sector, Goodburn believes the biggest threat is the lack of young talent coming into it, which is why she’s at the ASE exhibition.
“The skills gap is a British problem,” she says. “I talk to colleagues in other countries and they don’t seem to have a problem recruiting what they call food engineers.”
The answer, she believes, is to get more youngsters to understand the career opportunities available to them in the food industry while they’re at school. “That means you have to start with the teachers – they need the lesson plans and the knowledge to be able to show children what food science is about.”
For instance, the chemistry of toasting bread is the same as roasting meat, Goodburn explains. Bread turns brown as its sugars break down and form carbon and its starches turn to dextrin, which has a slightly sweet taste, she adds.