Does the consumer take food for granted?
In my career as a researcher and head of food research I have been met with quizzical looks many times. Is it possible to research food? Most people see the need to understand more about nutrition and the body’s need for nutrients. But what else could there be to research?
We are all consumers of food and beverage products, but not everyone is as concerned with the knowledge it takes to generate new products, markets or marketing channels, or to safeguard a sustainable supply of raw materials.
Are the food industry and food science sectors good enough at communicating the effort and dedication behind the food available for purchase today?
After more than 30 years in the industry, and as I am about to begin a new life in retirement, I find that it is time for a retrospective look at my career. Here are some of the things I have contributed to through my career as a food scientist.
On 1 April 1988 I had my first day as a researcher at Norconserv in Stavanger.
My expertise was in human anatomy and physiology, with a particular focus on brain functions, and many years of experience teaching healthcare professionals. At Norconserv, however, my focus shifted to research on packaging and foodstuffs.
From intuitive to scientific measurements
The old hands working at the canning laboratory had acquired important skills over many years. By using a trained eye and simple tools for measuring thickness, they could easily determine whether the closure between the lid and bottom of the metal cans was sufficiently tight.
I, on the other hand, was plunged into a steep learning curve with multiple training courses and learning how to use new measuring instruments. We would now be measuring the thickness of the closure against international specifications.
I also learned that the internal varnish coating of metal cans could have a great impact on the suitability of the packaging and the product’s shelf life.
In collaboration with an international supplier of varnish, a large-scale storage experiment was initiated where cans with an inner coating of a new type of water-based varnishing were packaged with standardized solutions for controlling the internal varnish layer.
The cans were stored under different temperatures for two years. Cans were regularly opened for inspection and to check on the inner coating. If the varnish passed all the tests, it could be approved for limited use after one year in storage. If all the tests were positive after two years, it could be approved for further use.
This new varnish provided the canning industry with new opportunities for cost savings and an reduced environmental impact. As a project manager, I gained experience in carrying out large projects with international participation.
From packaging to product development
After researching and working with metal packaging for a while, I moved on to plastic packaging, and concepts such as migration and barrier properties were part of the daily work of me and my colleagues. We carried out several larger assignments and projects in collaboration with the industry.
Packaging was increasingly regarded as a part of the product development process, so we naturally began looking into the development of new products as well. Several major research experiments took place in which we tested out new packaging types for heat treatment of seafood and experimented with new packaging methods.
On behalf of the packaging and food industry we rented huge packaging machines for skin packaging and form fill sealing. The machines were set up in our pilot plant, and we started testing various packaging methods in collaboration with our industrial partners.
MAP packaging (modified atmosphere packaging) was tried out at a large scale for the first time in Norway at Br. Sirevåg’s plant in Sirevåg in Rogaland. We had been able to get our hands on one of the first MAP packaging machines in Europe, but it was too large for our pilot plant, so instead we placed it at the Sirevåg plant.
We allowed participants from the entire food industry to try the new packaging methods with their own products.
As a direct result of these experiments, several chicken, meat and fish manufacturers in Norway ordered new packaging machines. One of the results of this research project is the signature yellow trays used for Prior products.
From product development to business development
With the founding of the network “Fagforum for mat og drikke”, a collaboration evolved between the culinary professional community in Stavanger and Norconserv.
In the meeting between industry representatives and research communities, the idea of ready-made dishes was born, and a project for producing ready-made dishes from Rogaland county was launched. The idea was to utilize sous vide technology to provide ready-made dishes for distribution to the grocery market,
and I had the pleasure of leading an interdisciplinary team working towards a common goal. The project attracted great interest and resulted in a series of new products, a new factory and the establishment of Fjordland as a supplier of ready-made dishes for all of Norway.
The experiences from this interdisciplinary collaboration were later utilized in our collaboration with the oil industry.
Statoil, the shell farming industry and IRIS (now NORCE) collaborated on a project focussing on land-based farming of scallops, which resulted in the founding of a hatchery and farming plant for scallops utilizing waste heat from Statoil’s plant at Kårstø.
From business development to department management
I gained vast experience and an extensive network during my first 15 years at Norconserv.
At one point I held a project position at the university of Stavanger where I was tasked with finding a strategy for launching a food research initiative at UiS. As part of the initiative, we started a collaboration between Norsk hotelhøgskole and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which has been strengthened over the years and has spawned several collaboration projects, fields of study, master’s degree programmes and strategic initiatives.
In 2003 I took over the role as managing director at Norconserv, and was part of the process of establishing Nofima, where Matforsk, Akvaforsk, Fiskeriforskning and Norconserv were merged into one single research institute.
New facilities and new projects
Norconserv’s facilities were old and became quite inadequate as the institute evolved. There was a need to centralize and co-locate the food expertise in the region, and the idea of “Måltidets hus”, a research facility in Stavanger, was born late in the 1990s
on Norconserv’s initiative. A project group was established under our leadership, and we were thrilled to move to the new building in 2009. This was perhaps one of my biggest projects.
NCE & Måltidets Hus AS
Our plans to co-locate industry, research and university expertise gained us the distinction of being a Norwegian Center of Expertise (NCE) in Culinology in 2007, a status we held until 2017.
The centre was anchored in the former network company Fagforum for mat og drikke AS, which was renamed as Måltidets hus AS.
Nofima as a partner of NCE Culinology entered into a cooperation agreement where I assumed a role at Måltidets hus AS which involved leadership and professional development. Among other things, this initiative led to a strong interdisciplinary focus on food for the elderly, and Måltidets hus AS became a key national centre of expertise in this field.
Several development projects were launched, as well as a specialized education programme at Norsk hotellhøgskole at the University of Stavanger.
Back to Nofima
For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of contributing to the development of Nofima’s strategic focus on personalised food in the VårMat project; an exciting initiative which requires interdisciplinary cooperation.
We hope it will result in many exciting commercial offerings for the consumers of tomorrow.
The market is changing, and as an R&D actor in food and meals, it is only natural that Nofima becomes a central player internationally in this field.
Now that I am about to enter retirement, I can look back at a period full of varied and exciting challenges, with a continuous flow of new opportunities and new focus areas. This has provided me with countless learning opportunities, a huge number of new contacts and not least many new experiences.
As a consumer, the time I have spent in the various food research communities has taught me that there is a lot of expertise behind the manufacturing of good food. This expertise stretches across many different fields of knowledge, and it is only when all of them play together that we can be able to develop profitable products of high quality.
Nofima covers such a vast breadth of knowledge, and is therefore very well equipped to serve as one of Europe’s leading industrial research institutes.
I wish the institute all the best for an exciting future.
- Helge Bergslien started working as a researcher at Norconserv 1 April 1988. He enters retirement in July/August 2019.
- Bergslien was Managing Director of Norconserv from 2003–2008.
- Norges Hermetikklaboratorium was founded in Stavanger in 1931 as one of the country’s first industry-specific research institutions, and was later renamed Norconserv.
- In January 2008, Norconserv was merged with three other research institutes; Akvaforsk, Fiskeriforskning and Matforsk. The new research institute was dubbed Nofima.