Where food meets IT: smart food technologies soon to be trialled at Lemgo

Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by Slate.fr in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects financed by the European Union in Europe. A perspective on what the EU can do in its regions.

In Lemgo (Germany).

We certainly live in a world of contradictions: while famine rages in a large part of the planet, certain regions are swimming in abundance. Globally, almost a third of food products are thrown away before they even reach the consumer’s table. The same is true in European Union (EU) countries, where huge amounts of valuable food are simply wasted.

This unequal distribution of food is now aggravated by the war between Russia and Ukraine, which are among the largest importers of wheat in the world. However, the staple food of poor countries, particularly in North Africa, consists largely of this cereal, which they import en masse from the two belligerent countries. Consequently, the cessation of production and exports due to the war threatens famine in many countries.

All the inhabitants of the planet could however eat their fill. But poor management of available food, linked to inefficient production processes, explains this unequal distribution that we observe today all over the world.

Analyze food products

To remedy this, research projects promoting smart food production must be implemented. One of these initiatives will soon see the light of day, under the aegis of the faculty of Lemgo (North Rhine-Westphalia), the Technical University of East Westphalia-Lippe (Technischen Hochschule Ostwestfalen-Lippe, TH OWL).

Research is to be conducted by the Smart Food Factory, a smart food production facility being built on campus. The work is scheduled to be completed this summer and, as of next autumn, this center should begin its research on the theme “Where food meets IT(“The union of food and technology”).

The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is financing this project to the tune of 10 million euros. An amount that includes the construction of the laboratories, the purchase of equipment and certain test facilities for the first experiments.

The objective of the Smart Food Factory will not be to produce food in abundance, but rather to analyze it digitally using demonstrators and test devices. It will therefore be a small-scale industrial establishment, which will then apply for research projects as needed. The results will mainly help to increase knowledge in the field of food technologies. And in practice, this program will be of primary interest to food production companies, which will be invited to participate. The latter will indeed have the opportunity to test their own products and carry out comparative analyses.

Transparent and accessible research

“We will be looking closely at food and how it is produced, together with our partners. Issues of sustainability, quality, supply chain security and profitability are central to our research efforts”, explains Andrea Davis, project manager. It is with enthusiasm that she guides us on the construction site, of which she knows every nook and cranny.

Andrea Davis, project manager, presents the Smart Food Factory, under construction on the campus of the technical university of Lemgo. Its purpose is to digitally analyze foodstuffs. | Marion Durand

We first enter the entrance hall. This space, which will be bright and glazed, already gives off an impression of openness in the current state of the work. “It is important for us to ensure the transparency of our research and to make it accessible to the general public”, points out Andrea Davis. In this sense, workshops, conferences and information sessions will be organized in the future. Shared workspaces will also be set up.

“Consumers are often skeptical when told about smart production. Smart foods? And what else, the milk cartons will soon start talking? We want to show that smart food production is indispensable in the future. It is only by inviting people that we will be able to convey this message”, continues the scientist. The entire building is surrounded by large green spaces and the production workshop, where the research will be carried out, is exposed to everyone’s view.

Focus on shelf life

It is once in the latter that Andrea Davis goes into detail. “These days, food production is mostly about putting raw materials into a machine to get a final product. We aspire to change that. We want to supervise and understand every step of the production process.” To this end, sensors will make it possible to know at all times the state of raw materials and processed foods. Raw materials, in fact, are natural substances that are different depending on each production batch.

However, any variation can have serious consequences on the quality of the product, to the point that entire batches must sometimes be eliminated. Therefore, the production processes must be able to be adapted during the operation. Only in this way can companies be efficient in the use of resources. In summary, according to Andrea Davis, you get a digital picture of the manufacturing process and you better understand the product. We can then give it a whole new dimension and produce more intelligently.

The temperature or the accumulation of certain enzymes in food can be monitored, for example. Similarly, sensors can be used to detect gases involved in the food degradation process. Conclusions can thus be drawn about the shelf life of a given food.

“We will devote a large part of our research to the shelf lifesays Andrea Davis. If we want to reduce food waste in the future, we will have to manage expiry dates differently. And if we can keep food longer, transport conditions will also be facilitated, which will guarantee a better supply for people living on other continents. As you can see, everything is closely linked.”

Vegetable milk, meat substitutes

Amidst the imposing machinery and the bustling construction site, Andrea Davis reveals the projects that will soon be implemented in Lemgo. Among these is a continuous brewing system, where every step of beer production, from brew to storage tank, will be digitally monitored. The results will be useful for brewmasters and the industry in general.

“We will devote much of our research to shelf life”, says Andrea Davis. The project is funded by the European Regional Development Fund. | Marion Durand

Social trends will also be taken into account in the Smart Food Factory. “We will pay particular attention to the efficient production of milk and meat substitutes, and we will improve it”, says Andrea Davis. Research on the production of vegetable milk from oats, soya and peas already exists at TH OWL.

“When it comes to plant milk production, the big question is how to produce plant-based protein efficiently. The leaves of the sugar beet can help us with this, for example. This is an avenue that we want to explore further.” According to Andrea Davis, the same question arises for meat substitutes, because demand is also increasing enormously in this area. Real meat products are also studied at the Smart Food Factory, as the project manager confides with a smile: “We have a tiled room in which you could carve a whole pig, like in a slaughterhouse.”

Another project focuses on the degree of maturation of air-dried deli meats. “Thanks to ultrasonic waves, we will be able to determine in the future whether a ham is sufficiently cured. This noble product must be in optimal conditions to be delivered. Again, this is a question of resource efficiency. Luxury hotels are often quick to throw away meat products that are not of impeccable quality.

Lemgo is set to become an attractive scientific hub in the field of smart food technologies. In this period marked by the scarcity and high cost of foodstuffs, these technologies will be essential for the sustainable and efficient management of food resources.

Translation: Voxeurop

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This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition which has received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.

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