food zapping

'Zapping' food to spark ROI?

AbacusBio and NZIER consultants have been working with the Food Industry Enabling Technologies (FIET) research programme to help develop methods to evaluate the potential economic benefits of investment in food technologies, and in R&D to support such technologies.

Compared to thermal processing, which is commonly used in the food industry to improve shelf life and maintain food safety, non-thermal technologies are emerging as potential alternatives – due to the better retention of nutritional value, colour, and flavour.

As part of the FIET research programme, Anna Campbell, Aaron Furrer, and Peter Fennessy from AbacusBio, and Chris Nixon from NZIER have been looking at ways to evaluate alternative investments in such new technologies.

One good example is the ‘zapping’ of food via Pulse Electric Fields (PEF). This technology is being applied to a range of food products internationally as it can reduce processing time and help retain nutritional quality. It may also have applications in microbial inactivation.

University of Otago food scientists, Professors Indrawati Oey and Phil Bremer, and Pat Silcock are leading such a project in New Zealand.

“Most such evaluations attempt to estimate a potential return-on-investment (ROI), which would help with decision-making for potential users of the technology. However, when evaluating investment in R&D, this is not usually feasible,” Anna says.

“In our experience, the investment required at the development end of the R&D pathway is often under-estimated resulting in poor commercial outcomes.”

A more holistic and multi-disciplinary approach that incorporates both science and business drivers is required to provide realistic assessments.

“We used the approach of asking the question: what would I have to believe to justify this investment? That’s quite a different question to technologists presenting cost-benefit analyses, which often look like hockey sticks to sceptical investors.”

“We estimated the costs of developing and implementing the technology and then ask whether the scale and timing of the required ROI is credible.”

“This can be applied at an individual business level or an industry sector level. Such a different way of asking the investment question helps people think differently,” Anna says.

“As PEF is fast emerging as a popular method of non-thermal processing, the market for PEF looks promising.”

“The million-dollar question is how big does the market need to be, and under what business models might we access the market, to provide the required ROI in R&D.”

FIET is a six-year research programme aimed at filling technology gaps in NZ food processing companies. It is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment through a $16.7 million research contract.

Hosted and led by Massey University, FIET also involves engineers and scientists from the University of Otago, University of Auckland, Plant & Food Research, AgResearch, and the Riddet Institute