Dutch Food Companies Share Secrets for Innovation and Product Consistency

Patrons at the Restaurant of the Future on the campus of Wageningen University and Research (WUR) center in Wageningen, the Netherlands are participants in the most advanced field testing of food products. Food companies learn about food choice behavior and test new products on diners who willingly agree to have their eating habits observed.

The institution is part of a large, world-renowned food research infrastructure in the Netherlands focused on the development of new and improved foods. Clustered in a region south of Amsterdam known as the Food Valley, public and private research institutions tackle issues such as salt reduction and removing fat from ice cream. One of the leaders in this area is WUR. Within the center is the RIKILT Institute of Food Safety, carrying out independent research into the safety and quality of food. The institute, which specializes in the detection, identification, functionality, and effects of substances present in foodstuffs and animal feeds, carries out work for governmental bodies, non-governmental organizations, and corporations.

Another major source of Dutch food innovation comes from NIZO, a contract research firm based in Ede in the heart of Food Valley. With the largest food testing pilot plant in Europe, NIZO, which began its work in 1948 in dairy research and subsequently expanded to the broader food industry, has a long list of major food company clients, including Heinz and Coca-Cola. NIZO’s current work includes projects to reduce salt in foods such as bacon, bread, and cheese, with a reduction goal of 50%. Another project involves using proteins to replace fat in ice cream.

Bob Steetskamp, program director for the Dutch government’s agri-food program, said innovation is the key to the Netherlands maintaining its position as a global leader in food. “We created this leading export position over the last 100 years by exporting products we have in excess,” Steetskamp said. “In the future, that’s not enough. You have to innovate, make products accessible to people, and make them cheaper and better. Otherwise, anyone else can do it.”

The food sector is one of the Netherlands’ primary industries, and corporations put strong emphasis on quality assurance. Many companies work closely with the country’s food research cluster while also developing programs of their own. What follows is a look at the quality efforts of a cross-section of Dutch food companies.

Hoogesteger, based in Zwanenburg, is a specialist in the processing of fresh juice, producing more than 17 million liters annually. Michiel van’t Thek, Hoogesteger’s managing director, said his company’s quality efforts begin with the selection of GlobalGAP-certified fruits from dedicated growers. “We have strict internal controls and the highest BRC and HACCP grades,” van’t Thek noted. “We work with fresh oranges, apples, pears, kiwis, melons, mangos, and so on.”

Hoogesteger sells only fresh juice, which until recently had a shelf life of just eight days. While that was sufficient for the Dutch market, the juice didn’t last long enough for greater Europe. The company worked with WUR on a project using pulsed electric field technology to neutralize microbes by exposing food to brief electric pulses. The process, which extends shelf life to 21 days, does not change the nutritional value or other aspects of the juice’s quality.

Van’t Thek said the results have been excellent so far. “Customer feedback is that the juices are similar to the Fresh 8 shelf life, and there is less waste for retailers and wholesalers.”

The French dairy firm Danone extended its presence in the Netherlands with the 2007 acquisition of Royal Numico, a specialist in baby and medical nutrition, also known as Nutricia. Danone subsequently decided to expand in the country and will soon open an innovation center that will focus on nutrition science targeted to age-specific or health-vulnerable groups.

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