Fabulous #food #science research with @IFRScience in Norwich – finding out more for #NFDF2014.

If you read my earlier #NFDF2014 post about the Norwich Research Park, you will know Norfolk is home to an internationally respected cluster of bioscience institutes. One of these is the Institute of Food Research (IFR), which specialises in exploring the relationship between food and health. This includes researching the importance of gut bacteria to good health, preventing food related illnesses and developing healthier, more sustainable foods (including ways to reduce and reuse food waste).

IFR on Norwich Research Park

IFR on Norwich Research Park

In early June, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Tim Brocklehurst to find out a bit more about IFR’s research, including its work with commercial businesses. Tim started by explaining the basic difference between the John Innes Centre (JIC) and the IFR. “JIC’s focus in on how to grow more crops (pre-farm gate products). Whereas the IFR is looking at how we convert primary production into safe, nutritious, food (post-farm gate products) for the consumer.”

“So while JIC is concerned with, say, increasing wheat yields, we want to know if it is the right wheat for people’s health needs and how we can improve it. This might mean looking at how to change the level of long-chain sugar molecules (amylopectin and amylose) in wheat, which can influence diabetes, or exploring the way gut bacteria breaks down wheat starch and the effect this has on a person’s calorie intake. We are also interested in the way gut bacteria signals to the brain that we are full – the ‘satiety’ response.”

You are what you eat – possibly

The role of gut bacteria (or gut flora, if you prefer) in human health is pretty amazing – as are the number of different bacteria in our stomach. As some scientists like to point out, from the bacteria’s point of view we are just a giant bacteria hotel. There are more bacteria cells in our body (some 10 to the power of 13) than there are mammalian cells – and there are over 3,000 different species of bacteria in our gut. These micro-organisms control how we process food, absorb calories and vitamins, and even how we feel.

Image of gut bacteria - somewhat enlarged - courtesy of IFR.

Image of gut bacteria – somewhat enlarged – courtesy of IFR.

“There is increasing evidence of a link between the state of our gut flora and health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis),” says Tim, “as well as our mood swings. And there is some evidence that re-balancing the flora (using faecal transplants) might help reduce the symptoms of some of these ailments. However, this is a hugely complex area – we have to be careful about how we interpret the evidence and related claims, which is why we need to conduct more research to gather sufficient data.”

Growing capabilities

That is one of the many reasons why a proposed new Centre for Food and Health (CFH) will be so important not just for the Norwich Research Park but for food science in this country.

“The CFH will effectively be an ‘IFR Plus’,” explains Tim, “integrating our expertise with the skills of colleagues at JIC, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), and the University Hospital. The presence of TGAC is particularly important because its high-speed gene sequencing capabilities enable us to conduct meta-genomic analysis on a scale we could only have dreamt of 10 years ago. We can now ask very detailed questions about what happens at the genetic level and the way diet might affect the genetic expression of proteins.”

Such genetic analysis may in time lead to the development of personalised nutrition, as well as personalised treatment for a range of diet related ailments. This is very exciting for the scientists but also creates significant business opportunities, which is why IFR is heading up a bid for European Union funding to set up a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) specialising in food innovation. “The idea is to start with the scientific research and then partner with the business community to create new products, new jobs and economic growth to fund further research.”

From Farmer to Pharma

According to a recent independent report, every £1 invested the IFR already returns over £8 to the UK economy through the commercialisation of its research and its support for businesses. It does this through a number of routes, including the Food and Health Network, which Tim heads up. “The Network is our knowledge exchange for colleagues in the food, drink and health related industries.”

The IFR has also set up IFR Extra to work with companies on new product development, product enhancement and product safety. IFR Extra is also looking at ways to lower manufacturing costs by saving energy and water and reducing food waste, including working with partners on The Biorefinery Centre (also located on the Research Park) to convert waste into fuel.

Talented IFR scientists doing ground breaking research.

Talented IFR scientists doing ground breaking research.

“This is a very exciting time to be a food scientist,” says Tim. “Not only is food the UK’s largest manufacturing sector but also globally we face huge challenges in producing enough safe and healthy food to feed a rapidly growing population, and doing so sustainably. This means there are numerous opportunities in both research and business to make a real difference to public health.

“Whether you want to do primary research to inform public policy (on say the level of sugar in food), work on improving foods or develop new medical treatments, this is the field to be in. The Norwich Research Park is already one of Europe’s largest single-site concentrations of research in Food, Health and Environmental Sciences – and it is set to grow rapidly over the next few years. So if you are a keen student or graduate, you should definitely look at the opportunities to work here.”

Thank you for your time Tim and a fascinating morning’s discussion.

Dates for your diary

If you want to find out more about the work of the IFR or the other bioscience institutes at the Norwich Research Park, please follow the links in this blog. Also, if you work in the food industry or the agri-food chain, you should take a look at the Total Food 2014 event, which takes place 11-13 November in the John Innes Conference Centre.

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About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

#Norfolk schools – your chance to win up to £2,000 in #NFDF2014 champion @Heygatefarms’ Grow and Cook awards

Could your local school use up to £2,000 to inspire children to grow and cook their own food? I’m sure it could, which is why you should persuade those in charge to enter the second Grow and Cook awards. This competition, sponsored by Heygate Farms Swaffham Ltd, aims to encourage children of all ages to explore the connection between farming and food – and how to prepare delicious, healthy meals.


Read about last year’s winners here.

William Gribbon, Heygate’s award winning Farm Manager in Norfolk, is the brains behind the Grow and Cook awards. He is passionate about farming and helping young people discover where their food comes from and how to enjoy it. This, along with his support for Norfolk’s farming community, is why the organisers of the Norfolk Food & Drink Festival asked him to be one of their three #NFDF2014 champions.

Making the link between farm and food

You might have see Will at the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association’s ‘Grow your own Potatoes day’ on 17 March 2014. This event was about encouraging children to explore the world of the potato, from planting to plate, in all its many forms. Visitors to the Royal Norfolk Show (25/26 June) can watch the children harvesting their potatoes and find out which team grew the heaviest crop.

In our modern, urban culture it is all too easy for children to grow up with limited knowledge of the source of most of their food or how to prepare that food. This leaves them dependent on fast food and ready meals. While not all such food is bad – and its convenience has real value for the time-poor – there seems little doubt obesity is partly linked to a lack of awareness of what constitutes healthy, affordable food.

The Grow and Cook awards aim to re-establish the vital link between growers and young consumers. The judges – Will and Michelin-starred Chef Galton Blackiston – will be looking for projects that encourage children to engage enthusiastically with growing and preparing their own food. These could involve learning important cookery skills for a healthier life or understanding the environmental challenges of watering, feeding and protecting crops from pests and disease.

Enter today

For your school’s chance to win one of the two £1,000 prizes, make sure they enter their project in the awards and then encourage friends and family to vote for them. You can find full details on how to enter and vote here. We wish all the children who take part the best of luck and hope they have lots of fun in the process.

NFDF coloured logos

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

Who do you trust? An #NFDF2014 visit to local @freedomfooduk approved abattoir to discuss food provenance and animal welfare.

Last year there was the horse meat scandal. This year the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) said the ‘lamb’ in some kebabs and takeaways isn’t always lamb. These two headline grabbing stories come on top of long standing concerns among many consumers about animal welfare, particularly in countries that export meat to us but don’t apply UK standards – such as in pig rearing.

As a result, more of us are taking food provenance seriously. Whether you enjoy a Sunday roast, or bacon with your morning fry-up (I wish), the quality of the meat we eat still matters. We want to know we can trust the source and that the animals have been well looked after in the process.

Among those benefiting from this increased interest in food quality are traditional local butchers, who use good local abattoirs to source locally reared meat. However, such abattoirs and butchers are increasingly rare – as consumer and supermarket demands force consolidation. Industrial scale abattoirs handling thousands of animals a day are increasingly the norm – with live animals shipped hundreds of miles from farm to factory.

Buy Local – it tastes better

Thankfully, here in Norfolk we are lucky – we still have a local, family run abattoir – and it has an excellent reputation among local farmers, butchers and restaurateurs. H. G. Blake (Costessey) Ltd (better known as Blake’s in the food community) runs a multi-species abattoir just outside Felthorpe. It handles cattle, pigs and sheep from local farmers and smallholders in the Eastern region – and only supplies wholesalers and independent butchers, not supermarkets.

There is an argument that every meat-eater should visit an abattoir at least once in their life just to understand what happens to the animal before it appears on your plate as tender sirloin. So, in my role of championing #NFDF2014, I visited Blake’s in April and met Andrew Clarke, the managing director. This wasn’t out of ghoulish fascination with the slaughtering process (I’m too squeamish for that) but rather to find out how they compete with the industrial food processors.

The business was founded over 60 years ago by the late Hilton Blake and is still family-owned (Mrs J Blake is Chair). It moved to its current site in 1995 where it has a modern purpose built abattoir, with an ‘A’Grade for food safety from the BRC Global Standards body. The abattoir is also RSPCA Freedom Food approved, testifying to its high standards of animal welfare, and has Soil Association approval to handle organically raised animals.

High standards of care reflect company culture

On meeting Andrew and his colleague Jason Forder (General Manager), it becomes clear very quickly that maintaining excellent hygiene, employee health & safety, and animal welfare are their major concerns. When I enter the office, Jason is on the phone to a customer politely explaining why delivery drivers are no longer permitted to carry whole sides of beef on their shoulders. “I know they used to but that was over 20 years ago – we don’t want to risk anyone’s livelihood and I’m sure you don’t want someone badly injured on your premises either.”

There’s a large TV screen on the wall in the office – displaying images from 14 CCTV cameras placed strategically round the premises. In one frame I can see some pigs making themselves comfortable in the deep straw of the holding pens. In other frames I can see people clad in white from head to toe preparing carcasses. “We installed the cameras nearly 20 years ago,” explains Jason, “partly for security but also to monitor the whole slaughtering process from delivery to dispatch, to ensure we maintain the highest standards.”

Andrew, who is also a livestock farmer and co-owner with his family of a farm shop in Hevingham, is passionate about animal welfare. “All our Norfolk beef is from local Quality Standard assured farms,” he explains, “where the cattle graze on some of the finest pastures in the country. We don’t want to ruin the flavour by stressing the animals, so careful humane handling at all times is critical. As well as having an FSA approved vet on site during slaughtering, we have five full-time animal welfare officers on the team and are training more.

Great tasting meat takes patience

“We know the farmers and the butchers – and often put them in touch so they can better understand each other. This builds confidence in the full traceability of the product from farm to final sale. And buying locally not only means shorter journeys for the animals but also helps reduce food miles, so is better for the environment.”

Look for this sign in your local butcher's shop - for great tasting Norfolk beef.

Look for this sign in your local butcher’s shop – for great tasting Norfolk beef.

As well as Norfolk beef, Blake’s sources pork from producers across East Anglia, including Blythburgh Pork, which is truly free range. “Blythburgh’s pigs roam large paddocks,” says Andrew, “where they root in the sandy Suffolk soil and socialise with their herd. This natural lifestyle means they grow more slowly than intensively farmed pigs and so develop more flavour.

“A lot of people think taste depends on the animal breed but feed, growing conditions and animal care matter just as much. It’s why our East Anglian lamb tastes so good all year round, from the prime spring lamb to late season animals finished on grass and root crops.” This attention to detail and passion for the very best tasting meat has helped Blake’s establish a loyal customer base, supplying many of the region’s best butchers, such as Archer’s and Papworth’s.

As fellow #NFDF2014 champion (and head chef at The Grove in Cromer) Charlie Hodson said, when I mentioned my visit: “I reckon Blake’s run the best abattoir in Britain. I buy all my beef from Icarus Hines, one of Norfolk’s premier butchers, and he gets it from Blake’s. So I can be sure it’s best Norfolk beef that has been properly matured and expertly butchered. This means I can be confident it will taste great – and our guests will love it.”

More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

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