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 two of our interview.
Kemin: What preventive measures can companies take in the field of food safety?
Prof. Devlieghere: Ever since the dioxin crisis (Belgium, 1999), a lot of work has been done on the technical aspect. On that level we have taken enormous steps. But we must not forget that people are also an important link in the entire process. We all need to work on a food safety culture. Resources need to be mobilised, both by governments and by corporate management. Another important point is the sanitation of machines. The machinery has been adapted to ensure occupational safety. Machines are therefore more covered, which makes it harder to open and clean them. As a result, micro-organisms in corners and crevices can increase the chance of contamination.
Kemin: What trends do you see in the field of food safety today?
Prof. Devlieghere: I believe the two main trends are: the "One Health principle" and transparency. The One Health principle assumes that humans, animals and their environment are one. Micro-organisms are constantly exchanged, which can highly influence food safety. Transparency is also becoming more important. Consumers want to know where their products originate from, what trajectory it has followed and what it contains. On the other hand, for competitive reasons, a company cannot just reveal every single supply chain or product detail. It is a difficult but important balancing act for the sector.
Kemin: And which innovations attract your attention?
Prof. Devlieghere: There is continuous innovation in the sector. For example, there is plenty of experimentation with combination technology based on the idea that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For example, combine a protective gas atmosphere in your package with lactic acid or other additives and you will see that you get better results. That's because you attack the bacteria on multiple levels. As a result, the microbial cell has more stress, which slows down growth or kills the harmful microorganism faster. In addition to the combination technology, also interesting new techniques appear, such as pulsed electric field technology. Food is then subjected to a pulsed high voltage, destroying harmful cells. This electrical pulse is an alternative to the pasteurization process through heating. The use of high hydrostatic pressure to extend shelf life is also an alternative. A major advantage of these high-pressure techniques is that the loss of taste, texture and nutritional value remains limited or is even avoided. These techniques are already being used on a larger scale but often still for niche markets.
Kemin: Does Covid-19 have an effect on food safety efforts?
Prof. Devlieghere: Indirectly, yes. That's because they have a common denominator, which is microbial contamination. Due to the corona crisis, people are made extra aware that they have to work clean. Extra hygiene measures are taken throughout the entire production process chain. Covid-19 puts the risk of contamination higher on the agenda.
Kemin: With your research team you work on models that predict microbiological spoilage and / or safety. What can you tell us about it?
Prof. Devlieghere: In short, we translate the behavior of micro-organisms into mathematical models. We examine how they grow or by what factors we can inactivate them. So there is a lot of data involved. The research should lead to user-friendly software packages which can be used by every stakeholder, from food companies to students to governments. The biggest advantage of this software is that it is time-saving. And yet, you must be aware that a model is always a simplification of reality and therefore never 100% trustworthy .
Kemin: Thank you for this fascinating conversation!