If you’ve driven along the A17 at Holbeach you would have gone past an important block of buildings that perhaps don’t look that significant from the road.
However, it is inside that some of the most cutting-edge and pioneering research work is being carried out for the food industry, teaming up with big brand names such as Tesco, Bakkavor, Tulip, Kettle Foods Ltd, the OAL Group and Iceland Manufacturing.
The National Centre for Food Manufacturing (NCFM) in Park Road is a satellite campus of the University of Lincoln and, as well as providing specialist education courses in the food sector, research is being carried out in robotics and automation, microbiology and chemistry, shelf life trials and more.
Proposals have recently been put forward to South Holland District Council for expansion of the site to the new Food Enterprise Zone (FEZ), off Peppermint Junction.
This will create a brand new Centre of Excellence in Agri-Food Technology, one of the first buildings earmarked for the land beside the A151 at Holbeach.
So what actually goes on inside the NCFM? Myself and photographer Tim Wilson went along to find out more.
We were met by dean of the campus Professor Val Braybrooks and Mathew Thompson, business development manager.
“We have two missions here,” explained Val. “To serve the food industry by helping businesses to advance skills and innovation. The key characteristic is that everything is employer driven.
“Our students are adults and young people and they are all employed so they study part-time. We also have a purpose-built food factory on site for teaching and research.”
“Bakkavor, for example, has been our partner for over two decades.
Most universities do not have full scale plant like this. This robot weighs three and a half tonnes and can lift up to a tonne.Professor Val Braybrooks
“They are our trustees in the Lincolnshire Educational Trust, along with Sainsbury’s so they are involved in supporting education at every level.”
Senior lecturer Keith Brewood met us in the centre’s food factory with apprentice Oliver Horne.
“We are doing research at the moment for a snack food company,” Keith explained. “They are trying to improve fat, salt and sugar reduction while still keeping the taste.”
Keith showed us an extruder (used for extrusion cooking). Here, raw materials such as powders or starches are fed into the machine and can then be converted into different shapes via the cooking process, to create pellets for breakfast cereals and snacks and more.
Student Kyle Constable, who works for the Peterborough-based OAL Group, was carrying out trials with the A.P.R.I.L robot.
This is designed to dramatically increase productivity, food safety and traceability by using robotics and digital technologies to provide next generation food manufacturing preparation and processing systems.
The robot can carry large ‘bins’ of dry material and help with the mixing and cooking process.
Val said: “Most universities do not have full scale plant like this. This robot weighs three and a half tonnes and can lift up to a tonne.”
In the food microbiology lab lecturer Dr Agnieszka Dudkiewicz said: “We have been swabbing surfaces and checking the swabs in the experimental factory to assess cleanliness.
“We have cutting-edge equipment for research. We are working with a very large international meat company and carrying out research in the shelf life of frozen meat.”
Her team has also just finished a series of projects for the Food Standards Agency, including looking at the safety and inspection of mechanically separated meat.
Inside the sensory suite, controlled tests are carried out on the taste, look and texture of various foods. The day we visited the team were testing meatballs for one company.
Senior lecturer Maureen Lancaster, who is also programme lead for science and food technology, said: “Everybody who is on the taste panel is screened and trained.
“They are in booths to remove any bias; there is no colour on the plates and they do a palate cleanse in between each test. They have to do the test in the same order and they are assessing the texture, aroma, flavour, sight and taste.”
Other research that ties in with a hot topic at the moment is looking at how to reduce household food waste and the amount of packaging used to produce food.
Senior lecturer Dr Moses Ajayi is currently working on a project called Food Heroes with the NCFM’s European partners funded by Interreg.
He said: “If you cannot measure the amount of food waste you cannot control it. There is a huge war on waste. So much food is rejected because it is too big or too small.”
We had just a glimpse into the research, work and training being carried out at the NCFM. The food and agricultural industry is moving at a fast pace and it’s clear that the centre is playing a huge part in driving that forward and putting South Holland on the map.
○ The proposal for a Centre of Excellence in Agri-Food Technology on land near the Peppermint Junction will provide a bespoke research and development facility to complement the existing NCFM.
Professor Val Braybrooks, said: “The Food Enterprise Zone is one of three in Lincolnshire to be developed. The one in Holbeach is designed to be hi-tech with the emphasis on food technology and science.
“The university will be an anchor tenant (in the FEZ), enabling further growth of the food sector in and around Holbeach. It is a very exciting time.”
Business development manager Mathew Thompson said: “If Kent is the Garden of England, Lincolnshire is the food basket.”
The Food and Drink Federation estimate that the industry will need 140,000 new recruits by 2024 and with key skills shortages, the training offered at the NCFM is moving forward to close that gap.
In robotics, for example, operators are needed to oversee the machines.
The use of robotics in the UK is still at a low level at the moment but that could change in the not too distant future with the help of the work undertaken at the NCFM.