Norwich to become home of world-leading food research centre

Norwich Research Park. Photo: Mike Page Norwich Research Park. Photo: Mike Page

Friday, May 23, 2014
6:00 AM

Norwich is to lead the charge in the global fight against unhealthy eating with the creation of a new centre of excellence for food research.

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Global revolution

Plans for a Food and Health Research Centre will put Norfolk at the centre of an agricultural revolution.

That is the view of mid-Norfolk MP George Freeman – a former life sciences advisor to the government – who believes the project has the potential to drive much-needed investment into the region that will attract businesses and create jobs for decades to come.

The announcement comes in the wake of a far-reaching blueprint published by the government last year that put the Norwich Research Park at the heart of a strategy designed to build bridges between UK food science and the agricultural industry in order to bolster yields, drive down crop disease and make the most of technological innovation.

“The growing interaction between nutrition and medicine is one of the most exciting areas of innovation in our sector,” he said.

“The 21st century will see a whole new class of disease preventing foods and a revolution in preventing disease through nutrition.

“This new centre puts the Norwich Research Park right at the cutting edge of this global revolution with extraordinary opportunities in the next few decades for new investment, businesses and jobs likely to appear here in Norfolk.

“The county that gave the world the first agricultural revolution is now poised to lead the next revolution in food and medicine.”

The multi-million pound scheme will establish an innovation hub on the Norwich Research Park (NRP) tasked with bringing nutritionally advanced foods out of the laboratory and onto the supermarket shelves.

Local policymakers and leading scientists have hailed the project as a major step forward in the battle against obesity and dietary diseases which leave a heavy financial burden on society.

And such are the expectations from the Food and Health Research Centre that it will aim to leave its mark on the world stage by producing the “safe and nutritionally enhanced” foods needed to feed the growing global population.

David Boxer, the director of the Institute of Food Research (IFR) at the NRP, said the site could bring a boost to the local economy by creating 150 new highly-skilled jobs while bolstering the economic value of its laboratories from £15m to £25m a year.

Health focus

Concerns over what goes into our food came into sharp focus last year following the revelations from the horse meat scandal.

The exposure by food scientists that leading supermarkets had sold mislabelled products containing cheaper cuts of meat sparked outrage and a widespread distrust of food producers while showing how little consumers know about what they eat.

But the proposed Food and Health Research Centre will look to build a close relationship with food producers in order to bring new products to supermarkets that can boost people’s well being.

While healthy eating has always been promoted by scientists, the proposed centre will look to address the heavy financial burden dietary diseases heap on society – from obesity to foodborne illnesses.

According to the NHS, the cost of treating diabetes and cancer costs £20bn per year – and is expected to rise steeply.

Although cutting-edge medicine has gone a long way to improving people’s chances of surviving life-threatening illness, scientists at the Norwich Research Park will look to target the root of the problem, by understanding how diets cause disease so they can create food products to prevent illness from developing.

But the success of the project – which will cost in excess of £26m – will hinge on forging closer ties with supermarkets, food producers and pharmaceutical companies which will need to bring the research to market.

“This will be a very significant site for the government,” Mr Boxer said.

“There has been a lot of discussion lately about the feeding the population of the world. But the focus of this centre will be to ensure it is done in a healthy way – so the bulk is not just increased, but the food has a beneficial nutritional impact as well. It is about getting more healthy and nutritionally balanced and safer food onto supermarket shelves.

“But it is vital that we have a good relationship with food producers and supermarkets. We may have the ideas, but we have got to have the providers in order to put these foods on the shelves.”

Funded by public money, the new centre will house more than 300 scientists and is set to be delivered by the end of 2017, subject to planning permission

It will become the new home of the IFR, part of the University of East Anglia’s Medical School and Science Faculty and forge closer ties with the John Innes Centre and the Genome Analysis Centre.

It will aim to deliver:

• A better understanding of the interactions between food and the digestive system.

• Create safe and nutritionally enhanced crop-based food

• Use fresh research to underpin strategies to improve people’s health and ease the burden of dietary diseases.

• Forge a relationship with the food producers and pharmaceutical companies to bring the research to market.

Michael Müller, director of the Food and Health Alliance at the NRP, said: “It is very important that we create a knowledge base of how an integral organ like the gut functions. That way food producers and pharmaceutical companies can use our data in order to grow their companies.

“We have to understand how people react to food at different life stages and understand why different digestive systems don’t work how they should. We can then have a direct impact by creating products from plant foods with an improved quality to help with those conditions.

“But we food needs to be about more than just calories – it is about having an impact by improving the levels of nutrition across the world.”

• Do you have a business story? Contact Ben Woods on 01603 772426, or email ben.woods@archant.co.uk

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