The new method, called Foodpro, is being billed as a possible alternative to conventional heating. The concept utilises ohmic heating, a process that heats food material internally by passing an electric current through it. The project team wants to find out to what extent the new process can help to improve microbial safety, reduce the need of chemical additives, and improve the market value of products due to increased consumer demand for healthy eating.
The process marks a departure from traditional methods of ensuring food safety. In most cases, the production of safe food products requires some form of heat treatment and, in traditional heating methods, the result is often a loss of nutritional quality. This is because the heat is generated outside the food and transmitted to it by conduction and/or convection.
With products containing particles, like fruit or vegetable pieces, this often causes overheating of the liquid within the food - in order to achieve sufficient heating of the solids.
The project is being co-ordinated by C-Tech Innovation, an independent technology development and consultancy company. Formerly part of the UK's Electricity Research Centre, it has over thirty years experience and expertise, in providing services to companies, universities and governmental bodies.
The project is pan-European with partners in the UK, Slovakia, Sweden, Portugal, Ireland and Spain and aims to improve taste and nutritional content.
Co-ordinator Michael Harrison is very enthusiastic about the project. "The cost of this type of Co-operative Research would not be possible without the European funding," he said. "We estimate the total project costs to be in the region of €1.12 million so, as more than fifty per cent is being provided by the framework programme, it is unlikely that the project could otherwise have gone ahead.
"Taking part in projects like this provides real contacts with organisations who would actually buy the end product. Their involvement allows partners to realise the time it takes to carry out research in the development process. Other participants have already expressed a desire to buy the final product."
The EU's framework programmes are the world's largest, publicly funded, research and technological development programmes. The Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) covers the period 2002-2006 and is the European Union's main instrument for the funding of collaborative research and innovation. It is open to public and private entities of all sizes in the EU and a number of non-EU countries. It has an overall budget of €17.5 billion.
Most of the budget for FP6 is devoted to work in seven priority thematic areas, including new production processes and food quality and safety. The food quality and safety priority re-addresses the 'farm to fork' approach by giving priority to consumers' demands and rights for safe, high quality food. The budget allocated for the duration of FP6 was €685 million.
There is also a focus on the research activities of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across all seven thematic areas.