Episode 8: Politics and Packaging in the Food Industry

Paul Trott smiling against a blue background. Life solved logo in left corner

Prof Paul Trott discusses how smarter packaging could actually be one key to reducing food waste

  • 12 January 2021
  • 17 min listen

Less packaging isn't always better for the environment. Professor Paul Trott explains how innovative food packaging can help tackle problems of food waste in society. But what problems are making it worse and who holds the power to make change?

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Having the correct number of holes in the film, depending on the fruit...can double the shelf life for raspberries or blueberries.

Professor Paul Trott, Professor of Innovation Management

Episode transcript:

Narrator: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. In this series, we hear about world-changing research from the brilliant minds at work here in Portsmouth. And behind the scenes of some of our biggest sectors, Portsmouth researchers are challenging the way we do things.

Paul Trott: And given that food manufacturing is usually the biggest manufacturing sector in any country, certainly is in the UK it's the biggest manufacturing sector, because, as you say, every week people are buying a lot of food.

Narrator: Today we're talking about innovation and development in the food industry with Paul Trott.

Paul Trott: The evidence is pretty dramatic. It's pretty, pretty convincing that packaging is a powerful producer of food.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: So people need to be a bit careful when they're always arguing for less packaging.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Narrator: Many of us are keenly aware how much waste a household can generate in a week, whether it's in uneaten food, packaging or unwanted items. Recent years have seen a change in the way we think and the options we have available to reuse and recycle. But John Worsey found out how smarter packaging could actually be one key to reducing food waste.

Narrator: Paul Trott is Professor of Innovation Management and Head of Strategy, Enterprise and Innovation. That means he's looking for new ways of changing the bigger picture, and his team works directly with businesses to change the way they do things for the better of our world. Today he tells us about how they're working to transform the food industry.

Paul Trott: There are many projects, this is the only one of them just to put it in context. So that is looking at the extent to which firms can reduce their food waste by increasing the use of packaging.

Narrator: Yes, you heard that right. It might seem counterintuitive to our general understanding, but the evidence shows that smarter packaging can actually help reduce other issues of waste.

Paul Trott: Really, it's trying to put forward the evidence because it's not new, people have known this trade-off for many years. But I think it's trying to show interesting stories of genuine examples of, hopefully, interesting and fascinating cases of where a company has been able to reduce their food waste by developing new packaging.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: One of the projects, for example, we've been involved was with soft fruits so strawberries, raspberries, things like that.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: And they have a very, very short shelf life. But with using, essentially, a sort of plastic film that has a certain number and certain size holes in it, depending on the soft fruit, that can release or... because there's a... fruit often produces a lot of gases, for example, as it matures. So all these issues. And so what this soft fruit company has done in association with Marks and Spencer, was to develop a technique for having the correct number of holes, let's say, in the film, depending on the fruit, whether it's raspberries, blueberries or whatever. And that can double the shelf life for raspberries or blueberries. Yeah.

Narrator: Because they work closely with real businesses, the team's work is highly practical, and that means they have to be great problem solvers.

Paul Trott: We try to help firms develop new products and services. I would say we look at problems that firms face because a lot of our PhD students are gathering data from [inaudible] a lot of them are with food retailers or the food industry. And so we pick up early on what some of the problems are and then we try to develop potential projects that we think they'd be interested in.

Paul Trott: What we're trying to do is to increase the amount of opportunities that a company has to develop new products and new services. Now, whether they take them or not is up to them. If we can convince them, say, look, if you to increase the amount of expenditure on your packaging, you can create new products. We've got a lot of projects in the food industry. But as you say, 10 years ago, that wasn't the case. In 10 years time, it probably won't be the case. So if you were to sort of try to describe my research, it is looking at how different industries manage the innovation process. We think there are lots and lots of opportunities for companies to improve. And one of the ways is to increase the amount of money they spend on R&D.

Narrator: By R&D, Paul means research and development. But in order to get the investment from companies, he has to convince them projects aren't only a good idea for a world, but also for their customers and profits. This is especially the case in food manufacture, as Paul discovered.

Paul Trott: Because it's so process-orientated, in other words, they're making thousands and thousands of tins of tomato or packets of curry or whatever it is, they usually just play around recipes or the packaging equipment or whatever it might be. So, and it's not all, but it's, we've noticed that innovation is dominated by the manufacturer, whereas in other industries it isn't so. So that's just a unique characteristic. And there's so much emphasis on cost and I mean, you'd be surprised a penny increase, well, what's a penny? But the supermarkets believe they have evidence to show that they'll put products on the shelves, and they can do this, they can automatically just increase the price by a penny or two pence or reduce it by. And they will and they will say we've got evidence that if we increase or decrease the price by a penny, it will influence sales quite dramatically.

Narrator: Back to the food waste example, Paul explained how improved packaging could really make a difference.

Paul Trott: The evidence is pretty dramatic. It was pretty convincing that packaging is a powerful reducer of food waste.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: So people need to be a bit careful when they're always arguing for less packaging. And I think, I mean, if people were to do more research, they would uncover there are certain food categories where more packaging can be justified.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: And I guess there are other area food categories where less packaging can be justified. You know, where you buy chicken now and you cook it in the bag.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: I mean, that was largely introduced to reduce the problem that the chicken producers had of reducing the bacteria on – the harmful bacteria – on the chicken. Sometimes the illustration can be a dramatic cut in food waste or in that case, an example of an improvement in the –

John Worsey: Health and hygiene.

Paul Trott: Health and hygiene. Exactly, yeah. And so we recognise that some products are far more dependent on their packaging than others: rice, microwavable rice is a good one. But when it comes to food, the packaging does perform quite a number of functions. So for a water bottle, not only does it contain it, but it helps with dispensing and things like that. With the microwavable rice, you're starting to build in more and more functions and then becomes to help with the cooking of it.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: So it can enhance the cooking. And if you start to look at some food products, you can see how some products are very dependent and there are categories that are dependent. So fresh, fresh products, that you don't need any packaging for fresh products unless you want to increase the shelf life. So there are some products that you could go to a store and just help yourself.

John Worsey: Yes, yes, you can. Yeah.

Paul Trott: But there are categories where there's scope. And what we're saying to companies is, look carefully at some of the products because there are opportunities to build in functions and activities which in other words, you can charge more for.

Narrator: But it's not just about packaging. The team works with research and development teams to solve all sorts of problems. Have you ever tried those little protein energy balls by Bounce? Paul explained how one of the team worked with them on their snack range.

Paul Trott: We worked with Bounce for... oh gosh, three years, so that was one of these knowledge transfer partnerships. So we had a research team who was there for two years. He was involved in developing new products, these.

John Worsey: In terms of the recipe or in terms of the packaging?

Paul Trott: In the recipe and the packaging. Yes.

John Worsey: Right. Ok.

Paul Trott: I mean, he was trained as a food scientist. I mean, the actual, again, food science, the details of all the ingredients was by the manufacturer, which they outsource. So he would come up with kitchen trials and again, they would iron it out. They'd say, OK, this is what you want to do and they would go to the shop floor and play around with their machinery.

Paul Trott: I think our reputation is, in our little group, is about helping industry, working on industry problems around the areas of innovation and product development.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: We're just coming to the end of a piece of research on packaging dependent products and the role of packaging in enhancing such products.

Narrator: That includes the microwaveable rice example Paul mentioned earlier. There's also a good incentive for companies to get behind this sort of helpful packaging as consumers will happily pay a little more for the convenience.

Paul Trott: The profit is marvellous, they love it. And we're saying, you should look carefully at all the different categories because there are opportunities for you to build in these extra functions if you're prepared to invest in R&D and innovation. Are they prepared to invest in R&D and innovation? Probably not. And there are all sorts of examples, I mean, the single wine glass. product. I think Marks and Spencers used it for picnics or something. There's fish, a lot of people don't like holding/touching fish so you buy fish ready, filleted in some sort of bag and you just put it in the microwave, you don't have to touch it which is great for some people. All sorts of products which, and Marks and Spences are very good at it because you often pay a premium for some of their products.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: And partly because of, you know, the packaging, etc.

Narrator: But the question of what the person in the supermarket aisle is prepared to pay raises some big questions around the balance of power in the food industry too. As one of the biggest sectors in the UK, it also holds huge responsibility for decisions that affect society. We may have touched on examples from manufacturers and suppliers, but where did the retailers come into this and who's holding them to account?

Paul Trott: A very recent piece of research is looking at whether retailers are... play a positive role in the development of new products in the food industry or whether they play a harmful role.

John Worsey: Right. Ok.

Paul Trott: So are retailers a positive influence on the development of new products or negative? And again, we show through our research examples where retailers are very negative because they're always wanting price reductions, they always... And so suppliers will say, we've got lots of new products, do this, we can do that. And the retailers will often say, no thanks, because it will increase the price or they'll say, yeah, fine, but we don't want an increase in the price.

John Worsey: Right.

Paul Trott: So, for example, easy-open cans for older people. There's lots of technologies where there's lots of new opportunities to introduce easy-open jam jars and things like that. But the retailers often say, no. They say, well, a lot of evidence if we put that product on the shelf with a one penny increase in price, or two pennies, the consumer won't buy it. But it shows the power of the retailers because they ultimately decide. Producers are very concerned about upsetting retailers because they have such a dominant position.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: So we look at the power relationship and all we're doing is raising issues for the industry about, you know, should you take action and are the retailers too powerful?

Narrator: When looking at the big picture of food supply from production to our kitchen table, Paul needs data from every part of the process. But that power dynamic has meant it's been tough to get all the information they need from suppliers at some points.

Paul Trott: Gathering such information is tricky because they're very wary about upsetting their big customer. So there's the supermarket grocery adjudicator, a relatively new role, and she is trying – with some success – tackling issues like this. And it's very much looking at the power of supermarkets. And she has had some success in improving the behaviour of the supermarket.

John Worsey: Right.

Paul Trott: But they are, I would say the sectors improving and the supermarkets are improving the way they behave and the way they treat their suppliers.

Narrator: In this way, Paul's team is not only helping to find and tackle problems on the technical side, but in a social context too. Paul explained where he thought the biggest difference could be made to benefit the most in our food industry.

Paul Trott: So what our research has done is looked at, well, how does innovation occur in the food industry and how does it compare to, say, the pharmaceutical industry or the automotive industry? And what our research reveals is a very different model of innovation. Whereas in the automotive industry, in the pharmaceutical industry, they have large amounts of scientists and engineers and they employ lots of people to work in laboratories and design factories to design new cars or whatever it might be. The food industry is all around food processing and manufacturing. So a lot of their design and innovation occurs on the shop floor. So you've got the big food processing plants which are up and running and very often the innovation occurs on the factory floor, so they just play around.

John Worsey: Right.

Narrator: The machinery and the and they'll introduce new pieces of equipment. Unlike other industries, they use what we call a trial and error, whereas other industries, it's much more driven by research and development. And given that food manufacturing is usually the biggest manufacturing sector in any country, certainly is in the UK, is the biggest manufacturing sector, because, as you say, every week people are buying a lot of food.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Paul Trott: You wouldn't have to increase the amount of spending on R&D very much to get dramatic impacts. The overwhelming evidence is that firms that invest in research and development and innovation tend to put to outperform.

Narrator: The food industry may be one of our largest, but it's just one of the sectors where this team is working to find and solve problems that ultimately affect the choices we have as consumers. From manufacturing technology to design, supply and economics, it's a tangled web to work with within. Whether it's in software, shoes or everything in between. You can follow the work of Paul and his colleagues at port.ac.uk/research. He's also featured in the very first issue of our new magazine, SOLVE, which features news, interviews and more world-changing ideas from Portsmouth. Go to port.ac.uk/solve.

Narrator: Next time on Life Solved, I'll be bringing you more world-changing research from here in Portsmouth.

Emily Nicholls: It's not saying that femininity is fixed across time or space, saying it's something that's embedded and decided within our own culture. So within the UK, ideas around being, kind of, looking and presenting our bodies in a certain way are tied up with what it means to be feminine.

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