Sunday Business Post – Best Business Food Drink & Agribusiness supplement – June 29 2008
Teagasc has a five-year fund of €30 million to develop new initiatives in the sector, writes Dermot Corrigan
Last month Teagasc, the agriculture food and development authority, launched a detailed report that outlined its strategy for the future. According to Liam Donnelly, director of food research with Teagasc and head of Moorepark Food Research Centre, the report – Towards 2030: Teagasc’s Role in Transforming Ireland’s Agrifood Sector and the Wider Bioeconomy – showcases Teagasc’s continuing focus on helping Ireland’s small and medium-sized food companies to develop and market new products.
“Teagasc 2030 outlines a special programme of technology support for smaller food companies,” Donnelly said. “The intention is for Teagasc to put personnel in place to link with a broader range of small food companies, so they can get access to our knowledge and technologies. If they have ideas for product development there will be a mechanism for us and Enterprise Ireland to help.”
Donnelly said ‘functional foods’, or food products with health and dietary benefits to consumers, were a focus for Teagasc.
“Currently Teagasc is allocating close to €30 million over five years to a new expanded programme of functional food research,” he said. “This will put Teagasc right at the centre of national objectives and ambitions for the development of functional foods, which is an important opportunity for the future given the increasing awareness among consumers of the relationship between diet and health.”
Teagasc funds and manages a wide variety of food research activities at its two dedicated food research centres, Moorepark in Fermoy, Co. Cork and Ashtown, Dublin 15.
“Our programme at Moorepark consists of traditional dairy research in mainstream dairy products such as cheese, and in dairy ingredients, while there is a strong meat background at Ashtown,” said Donnelly. “The plant and facilities of the food directorate are second to none in the world.”
Donnelly said that a typical Teagasc food research programme was initiated by a proposal from a customer, who approached Teagasc with an idea and funding.
“80 per cent of the time the customer is the state and its various agencies that fund research, the Department of Agriculture being the principal one,” he said. “They fund research that is for public dissemination. Where a private project is required, and it is essential we engage in private projects, as it spearheads the technology transfer strategy, then it is essential that a private company funds that project. Companies in that process can avail of supports from Enterprise Ireland, they can use that money to commission us for our input.”
Products developed at Moorepark and Ashtown are currently enjoying commercial success in Ireland and further afield, Donnelly said.
“We have been involved in the development of cheese cultures for use in Irish and continental cheese varieties,” he said. “Dubliner Cheese, which is a Carbery product, was developed here at Moorepark. Currently there is also a pro-biotic cheese being marketed by the Irish Dairy Board in the UK, which was developed here.”
Ingredients products aimed at industry customers are also developed at Moorepark.
“We have been involved with the development of whey protein ingredients, notably Alphalac, which is used by Wyeth worldwide in their infant formula,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly said Teagasc’s research activities were in line with Ireland Inc’s goal of developing an internationally respected knowledge economy.
“We have worked with multinationals, for instance Wyeth, who have been so important to the development of the Celtic Tiger,” he said. “The continuation of our economic success is dependent on moving to knowledge-based investment as distinct from just manufacturing investment. We fit right into that agenda when it comes to multinational food companies.”
Irish companies’ R&D budgets are typically too small to compete with large multinationals, so government support is vital, said Donnelly.
“Ireland is well respected for the technical quality of its food companies, but we would not be in the Premiership when it comes to innovation and R&D,” he said. “Multinationals like Nestle, Unilever and Danone have a vastly greater R & D expenditure. The best justification for the state investing in public research is to bridge that capability gap, because our companies are operating on tight margins and at a lower scale.”
Donnelly said that Moorepark’s was not involved in GMO (genetically modified organisms) research, in line with EU and government policy.
“We leave the GMO debate to the policy makers and EU policy is very conservative in that area,” he said.
Developing organic foods was not a primary priority for Moorepark, Donnelly said.
“There will always be a niche market there, but there will always be a debate,” he said. “There is no convincing scientific evidence that organic foods are any healthier than non-organic foods, except in a situation where chemical residue from herbicides or other sources is present. It would be an error to believe that organic milk has any health attributes that normal milk does not have.”