Frank Devlieghere is professor in the field of Food Microbiology and Preservation at Ghent University in Belgium. He is also a consultant for several food companies and their suppliers helping them in product and process innovations. His key areas are food packaging, microbial spoilage and safety, new food preservation methods and predictive modelling. We talked to him about food safety and preservation and trends in the food industry. This is part one of our interview. We will share the second part next week.
Kemin: Where does your passion for food microbiology come from?
Prof. Devlieghere: Back in college, the courses ‘food chemistry and food microbiology’ were part of my third year Bioscience Engineering. And I was then taught by two high spirited professors who sparked my passion for food, for which I’m very grateful.
Kemin: What are your areas of expertise?
Prof. Devlieghere: I’m a food microbiologist. That means that I study microorganisms in foods with the aim of inhibiting their growth so that food products are safer and have a longer shelf life. Various factors play a role: from contamination risks during production to preservatives to the packaging that is used.
Kemin: In what way have you seen food safety and food storage evolve?
Prof. Devlieghere: I notice a greater duality in the food industry. On the one hand, consumers want fresh food with as few preservatives as possible, which inevitably reduces shelf life. Also, products are heated less intensively than before and there are more restrictions in the field of packaging. On the other hand, as a food company you must be able to market your products because consumers desire fresh food that is safe, lasts long and maintains its sensory attributes. In addition, food travels around the world these days, which means that they must have a longer shelf life anyway. And of course, you also want to avoid food waste. These are all ambitious challenges laid upon all players in the food industry.
Kemin: How do you feel about clean label ingredients?
Prof. Devlieghere: Over the past five to ten years, natural extracts and fermentates have sprung up like mushrooms. Therefore, it’s positive that European policy in this area is increasingly demanding. For example, companies that attach great importance to safety and can properly substantiate their natural alternative can continue to work on high-performance clean label ingredients.
Kemin: Which food products pose the greatest risk of contamination?
Prof. Devlieghere: That varies. Both products of animal and vegetable origin are at risk of contamination. Microorganisms make no distinction. Rather, it is the acidity and moisture content of food that play the part. In addition, meat substitutes are processed in the same way as meat products.
Kemin: What are the most common causes that people become ill from contaminated food?
Prof. Devlieghere: The main cause lies often with the consumer. A BBQ is a good example: a BBQ-knife is also used to cut vegetables, a tray of vegetables is left in the sun for too long, etc. So much can go wrong in terms of food safety. In addition, there is also still a lot of work in the sector in this respect. You must view food safety at the process level. From the animal at the farm to the piece of meat on your plate, there are many intermediate steps. Food can be contaminated at every link in the chain.
Kemin: Sometimes food products are recalled for food safety reasons. Does that have serious consequences for the companies involved?
Prof. Devlieghere: A food recall can have major consequences. Both economically, being the cost of the recall, as well as reputation damage. Notably when the recall is widely spread in the press, you see that companies sometimes have to close down or see their shares plunge when they are listed on the stock market. On the other hand, the consumer must realise that zero risk does not exist. There is always a risk associated with foods, no matter how small it may be.
Next week, we will publish the second part of this interview. We will then look at the future of the food industry.