90 year birthday special

Food industry’s 90 years of innovation

By Colin Dennis

- Last updated on GMT

The pace of food manufacturing change has quickened over the past 90 years
The pace of food manufacturing change has quickened over the past 90 years

Related tags Food manufacturing Food safety Food

Food and drink manufacture has undergone major advances, designed to meet changing consumer tastes and modern production standards.

The developments and achievements in industrial-scale food manufacture over the past 90 years, and especially in the last 40 years, are unprecedented (see Key Milestones).

Such developments have relied on the integration of appropriate raw materials/ingredients, unit processes, packaging, storage, handling and distribution systems to ensure the delivery of safe, nutritious and high-quality products to an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Manufacturers have responded to the complex interaction of changing economic/commercial, social, political, environmental, regulatory and technological factors, including the special requirements of the war years and food rationing (1940–1954).

The demands of the retail sector (including its focus on own-label), use of domestic appliances (eg fridge, freezer, microwave), ever more demanding and inquisitive consumers, changing regulations, food control and commercial trading standards and the increasing globalisation of the industry in recent decades have all impacted on food manufacturing.

These many challenges have required continual improvement in traditional technologies, such as canning, freezing, drying and fermentation, as well as the need to embrace the opportunities offered by new science and technology in terms of new materials and ingredients (including additives and processing aids), processing and packaging technologies, enzyme technology, new sensing and control systems, new quality management and food safety systems and new and more sensitive analytical capability.

Improvements in the design and control of processes, more hygienic design of equipment, and factories and the associated development of cleaning and sanitation practices have been essential in the adoption of less severe processing systems and in combining more unit processes during manufacture.

All have enabled greater efficiency, improved product quality and assurance of safety, while delivering much greater choice and convenience to the consumer.

Developments in an expanding range of scientific disciplines (see box right) have underpinned technological and engineering applications, product, process and package developments, and approaches to food safety and food control.

Evolution of the science of food

  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Engineering
  • Sensory science
  • Nutrition     
  • Molecular biology
  • Genetics
  • Omics
  • Nanoscience
  • Materials science    
  • Data science
  • Informatics
  • Human physiology
  • Endocrinology
  • Human genetics
  • Behavioral science
  • Psychology
  • Neuroscience
  • Social science
  • Sociology of scientific knowledge

The application of sound science (back to top)

Increased attention on food composition, authenticity, residues, contaminants and allergens have all relied on the application of sound science and the validation and accreditation of increasingly sophisticated and sensitive analytical methods.

The foresight of the government after World War I in establishing a series of membership-based, food research associations as public-private partnerships was fundamental to supporting the food manufacturing sector.

These subsequently became Campden BRI and Leatherhead Food Research. The scientific support was further enhanced by several fully government-funded food-specific research centres.

In addition, the food manufacturing sector has relied on the support of various trade associations, in responding to changing national and international regulatory frameworks, public policies and general trade and sector issues.

These include the Food and Drink Federation (1913), the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers (1917), the Federation of Bakers (1942) and, more recently, the Chilled Foods Association (CFA) (1989).

The 1930s and ’40s saw the development of many familiar confectionery and breakfast cereal brands, the formation of British Sugar, availability of instant coffee and the need to extend the availability of perishable products by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the then, newly commercialised technologies of canning, bottling and freezing.

The only consideration at that time was that food should be nourishing and affordable. The 20 years after World War II were marked by increased mechanisation in factories and on farms; an understanding of the suitability of raw materials for processing (eg varieties of fruits and vegetables for canning, freezing, jam making, wheat varieties for milling and baking); improving flour yields during milling; moving from batch to continuous processes; and greater integration of processing and packaging systems.

The commercialisation of the Chorleywood Bread Process in 1961, in particular, enabled greater use of the softer (compared with North American) British wheats.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the food manufacturing sector also recognised that consumers would make choices about quality and convenience.

Influencing consumer acceptance (back to top)

From then on, there has been increased emphasis on understanding factors influencing consumer acceptance and preference. Approaches have become more refined and sophisticated in the past 30 years.

In the 1960s, the predicted shortage of protein-rich foods, stimulated a search for alternative sources. A notable development was mycoprotein (Quorn), launched in 1985.

The 1960s and 1970s were seminal decades for developments in food manufacturing technologies, which were to provide consumers with much greater choice and convenience while improving product safety and quality.

During this period, the introduction of transformative packaging technologies involving a range of thermoplastic materials which, either alone, as laminates or in combination with cardboard and metal film, opened up a range of new packaging sizes and formats suitable for different processing technologies.

These materials formed the basis for, and increased use of, ‘high-temperature, short-time’ processing, using different heating systems, depending on product formulation, (eg plate, scraped surface or tubular heat exchangers, steam injection/infusion, ohmic), in combination with new aseptic or hot clean-fill packaging systems, ranging from single-serve pots through pouches, cartons and bottles to 55 gallon bag-in-box and 300 gallon reusable bag-in-bin systems.

This technology positively impacted both the transport of bulk ingredients and the retail sector for juices, milk and dairy products, as well as low-acid soups and sauces, including particulate products.

The advent of plastic packaging was also the stimulus for a rapid expansion of chilled food products in the 1970s through to the 1980s and ’90s.

The first chilled foods in the 1960s were sliced meats and pies but, by the next decade, products included salad dressings, coleslaw, potato salad and dairy desserts had appeared.

By the 1980s, ready-to-eat meals, quiches, flans, sandwiches, pizzas, ethnic snacks, pastas and soups were retailed via chilled supply chains, with even more extensive ranges of products in the following 20 years.

Ready-to-eat meals (back to top)

In 1989, when the CFA was formed, the chilled food market was worth £550M. By January this year it has risen to about £12bn with the number of products, in the same period, rising from about 1,000 to about 7,000.

This sector has relied on combining a range of processing/packing technologies (eg pasteurisation, high pressure processing, modified atmosphere/vacuum packaging) with critical control of hygiene practices and chill temperatures during, production, storage, distribution and retail.

The essential and non-negotiable objective of food manufacturing, throughout the past 90 years, for all processing and packaging systems has been to ensure safe products.

Although conceived in the 1960s, as part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space programme, the hazard analysis critical control (HACCP) concept firmly marked the transition from safety control to safety assurance in food manufacture in the 1980s and ’90s, and now, in combination with good manufacturing practices, forms the basis of food safety management worldwide.

To enhance food safety and combat food fraud, assurance systems have now also embraced ‘threat’ and ‘vulnerability’ assessments. The most progressive companies also take steps to create a food safety culture among the workforce at all levels in order to ensure a holistic approach and reinforce that food safety is everyone’s responsibility.

In the past 20 years, there has also been a focus on the traceability of raw materials used in food products throughout the supply chain. Such traceability systems are an essential part of quality and food safety management and are integral to regulatory frameworks and commercial standards, being especially important in food fraud and food safety investigations.

Since the turn of the century, with advances in nutrition and health sciences, greater emphasis has been placed on health and wellbeing, which has resulted in the reformulation of many products to reduce levels of salt, fat and sugar and to increase dietary fibre.

Similarly, with the increased recognition of the impact that the food industry has on the environment, emphasis has been placed on reducing the use of raw materials, energy and water and the reduction of food losses and food wastage.

The remarkable developments and investments made in food manufacturing over the past 90 years have resulted in the largest manufacturing sector in the UK today, contributing £28.2bn to the economy, employing around 400,000 people, and providing consumers with of an affordable range of convenient, safe and nutritious products while recognising the need for more sustainable food supply systems.

Key milestones 1940–1960

  • Reduced use of packaging during war years
  • Dole aseptic canning introduced
  • 2% of households have refrigerators
  • 40% of household income spent on food and drink
  • British Baking Industries Research Association 1947
  • Brewing Research Foundation 1947
  • Food rationing ended 1954
  • Food & Drug Act 1955
  • Teabags
  • 13% of households have refrigerators
  • First graduate courses in food science and technology 1959
  • Campden Fruit & Vegetable Canning and Quick Freezing Research Assoc. 1952

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