The EU is sponsoring an integrated seafood research programme that for its form and scale is unique throughout Europe. The main focus of SEAFOODplus is consumers need and desire for healthy products. It will be concerned with tailor-made products, better utilization of by-products, ethically acceptable fish farming, and more besides. Over 70 partners, among them 12 commercial enterprises, are participating in the project. The EU's financial contribution amounts to about 15 million euros, and the total budget when partners' own contributions are added amounts to about 26 million euros.
October 21, 2003 was an important day for SEAFOODplus coordinator Torger Børresen and his negotiating team… for that was the day on which the EU Commission in Brussels confirmed the revised work programme for SEAFOODplus. The necessary contracts will be signed at the end of 2003 at the latest. And that means the way is free for the biggest research project that the EU has ever sponsored in the seafood sector - not only with regard to the total budget sum of about 26 m € but also with regard to the content and complexity of the research programme. It takes into account all the different stages within the value-adding chain and hardly any aspect will be omitted from the investigations. In contrast to traditional research approaches, the starting point for the SEAFOODplus research is the consumer. The programme will focus on consumers' demands for healthy, safe products that have been produced using sustainable, environment-friendly methods and processed using state-of-the-art techniques. For example, how does feed composition influence fish quality, which ingredients are lost during processing, how can so-called waste be put to good use, and what health benefits do fish products have to offer apart from Omega 3 fatty acids? These are just some of the many questions awaiting answers within the context of the complex programme. The researchers have 4½ years to investigate these issues: on fish farms, in laboratories, at processing facilities and in hospitals.
WEFTA was the initiator of the research programme
The preliminary work for the huge programme dates back to the year 2001. The EU wanted to tread new paths in its sixth research framework programme. Instead of the usual small projects for which administrative input tends to be high and development boost low they were looking for a project size which would put expense and benefits into a better ratio. "Quantity does not always mean quality", is the opinion of Professor Jörg Oehlenschläger from the Fisheries Research Institute in Hamburg. He has played a part in the project right from the start. "But often it is only when a certain 'critical quantity' is exceeded that the required innovation boost is achieved." A prerequisite is still, of course, that the content of all integrated sub-projects is directed towards a common goal. In the case of large programmes like SEAFOODplus this demands immense planning input. The basic conditions were, however, favourable because a European network of institutes and scientific facilities had already existed for a good 30 years in WEFTA, the Western European Fish Technologists Association. WEFTA is committed to practical research in the fish sector. In spite of this advantage, it still took a year - during which the fish experts met almost every month - to fix the basic structures of the programme and the cornerstones of its content. However, it was soon realised that much more expertise than found in the traditional seafood institutes were needed to realise the ambitions called for by the Commission. A search for the best partners in other research areas started. The result was a unique by having researchers from nutrition, medicine and consumer science joining technologists in a true multidisciplinary consortium.
More than 70 partners involved
Already early on it became apparent that the effort and expense involved were going to be worthwhile. SEAFOODplus was among the few programmes that were selected by the EU Commission from nearly 900 drafted ideas that were submitted for the first call. That was in itself already a big hurdle for SEAFOODplus to overcome for the programme had to assert itself against other important topics from the food sector. What was in favour of SEAFOODplus was not only the high scientific standard but also the broad networking of the sub-projects between themselves, the complexity of the multidisciplinary programme and the meaningfulness of the anticipated results. About 70 partners from 16 European states, among them both research facilities and small and middle-sized companies, are co-operating in sub-projects. Even outside Europe there has been an interest in participating, so the Canadian enterprise 'Aquanet' is also a partner in the project. This wide scope creates favourable conditions for putting the results into practice quickly. Altogether, there are 20 sub-projects embedded in the research programme SEAFOODplus. The application was 300 pages long when submitted 15 April 2003. Competition among applicants was strong, and only six proposals out of 69 were selected for granting within the food area of Framework Programme 6. SEAFOODplus was one of these six proposals.
Project starts on 1 January 2004
The basic 'okay' came from Brussels just three months later. Unfortunately the available funds were not sufficient to grant the whole proposal, so budget reductions and elimination of parts of the programme was necessary. However, no cuts had to be made in the general goals of the programme. Following EU approval in October 2003 there remain only some final bureaucratic obstacles to be overcome. These have to do with concrete personnel responsibilities, signatures, preliminary work plans and, of course, financing. Research programmes of these dimensions demand special management structures for they cannot be administrated 'on the side' so to speak. So with the official start, which is scheduled for 1 January 2004, the life of Professor Torger Børresen, a Danish fisheries researcher, will change. For the duration of the programme, 4½ years, he will assume the overall leadership and responsibility for this key project. He will be supported in his work by a Council consisting of 12 experts who together cover all the project areas. One of their tasks will be the coordination and timing of the numerous individual activities because a lot of the projects build up on one another. Should, for example, one of the groups deliver its results too late or not in the required quality this can delay the work of the other teams. Added to this is the fact that important results are to be translated into action during the time in which the programme is still ongoing. In order to be able to manage the whole project at all, the groups of all the subsections will draw a balance and present their new work plans at intervals of 18 months.
Research projects divided into six areas
- Seafood and human nutrition:
The sub-projects within this RTD area will examine the significance of seafood for human nutrition with regard to diminishing the increased incidence of major chronic diseases that are linked to nutrition. These include cardio-vascular diseases, cancer and inflammation of the intestine. For example, what role does seafood consumption play in a population's health status in the different European regions? Might it, for example, be possible to prevent obesity or osteoporosis via nutrition? The studies will mainly focus on young people, pregnant women and their children.
- Seafood and consumer behaviour and well-being
One of the areas that the researchers will examine in this cluster is consumer behaviour. Which factors influence a consumer's seafood consumption? How important is the role played by seafood in nutrition and what image does seafood have? What does a seafood product have to have for it to be accepted by the consumer? These topics will focus particularly on the health value of seafood. How can we best reach consumers and communicate more effectively with them? For the fish industry the results of these studies will offer important starting points for the development of new products and improved marketing strategies.
- Seafood safety
In spite of the indisputable value of seafood within human nutrition these foods also involve risks because seafood products may contain bacteria or viruses harmful to human health . The topics in this RTD pillar are concerned with the search for risk factors and the question as to how these can be reduced or eliminated. The study will mainly focus on possible sources of product contamination by viruses and bacteria and contamination leading to production of biogenic amines. Where are the sensitive intersections that conceal particular dangers? How are risk and benefits balanced in these products?
- Seafood from source to consumer product
This topic area is concerned with the development of seafood products that are tailor-made for the needs and desires of the consumers. And it is not only about product quality and safety but also about optimal health and nutritional value. For example, does it make sense, when certain valuable ingredients are lost during processing to add these at a further processing stage? Is seafood changing into functional food? An important aspect when considering the full utilization of the raw material. Not all parts of the fish have the same quality and composition. What can be compensated in order to get homogenous products?
- Seafood from aquaculture
This RTD pillar comprises numerous topics. It will investigate the influence of feed composition on product quality, husbandry, various aquaculture systems, the physiology and genetic make-up of fishes. Much room will be given here to studies on how the fish are kept prior to slaughtering so that the quality of the fishes is maintained. Essentially, this pillar is about the search for an optimum balance that will unite the constraints of intensive farming with the demands of the consumers for healthy seafood products that are produced in ways that are ethically acceptable and with minimum impact on the environment.
The sixth important topic area is devoted to problems of traceability, which have recently gained more significance. Traceability not only creates confidence among consumers but it has also become an economy factor for companies. The implementation of functioning traceability systems from the live fish to the final ready-to-eat product is thus indispensable. It is the only way to trace the path of a product from the consumer to its origins. The SEAFOODplus researchers named this concept 'fork to farm'. Their traceability research topics will involve all the RTD pillars within the programme.
Internal information exchange between the project teams
The individual research projects will in part be realised by groups that are already well acquainted with seafood, but will also include teams for whom this research object is new. This applies for example to those researchers who will examine the effects of seafood products on health in clinical sections. Integrating both equally within the programme and training them to work in relation to the project will be an additional challenge to all participants. To achieve this special goal, SEAFOODplus contains a comprehensive spectrum of measures and methods: training courses, the handling of research topics by several teams, personnel exchange, workshops, the joint use of data bases and exchange via special websites on the Internet. The website www.seafoodplus.org is already available as an effective forum for information and exchange of ideas.
Commercial companies integrated within the project
Special attention will be devoted to co-operation with small and middle-sized companies. After all, a lot of the research projects should ultimately deliver results that can be put to commercial use afterwards. The faster their translation into action is achieved the sooner the high personnel and financial costs of SEAFOODplus can be justified. Important results are to be made immediately available to the public even whilst the programme is still ongoing. This applies in particular to new technologies, which will create economic benefits for their users. It is the hope of those responsible for the project that some of them might even lead to the setting up of new companies and thus to the creation of jobs.
Fast distribution of results
There will be a special working group whose job it will be to distribute the research results. This group will use the full spectrum of modern communication options to make politicians, consumers and companies in Europe familiar with the important results from the projects: via, for example, specialist publications, the Internet, leaflets, presence at conferences and trade fairs, interviews and press releases.
Apart from the consumers, the most important target is, of course, the seafood industry. For this reason close contacts are to be sought to processing companies and aquaculture enterprises in order to inform them on progress made. The European associations of seafood processors will play a particular role here as a platform. Many of them have their own networks via which information can be distributed quickly. Information stands at important European seafood exhibitions and trade fairs are also planned. It will be possible to use these events to discuss the goals and results of SEAFOODplus with representatives from industry. A particularly important target group is the retailers who sell seafood. They have direct, daily contact to customers and constitute the intersection via which the information can reach the consumer. Because, however, a lot of retailers hardly have the necessary scientific background knowledge to be able to interpret the results directly, the 'Dissemination' team will offer special help here. It will act as an interpreter, so to speak, who translates the scientists' technical jargon into everyday, generally comprehensible language. Simple examples will make clear the benefits of SEAFOODplus to consumers, too.
Company applications still possible
The new path that the EU is treading with complex, integrated research programmes such as SEAFOODplus offers huge benefits compared to previously practised research methods. The multidisciplinary approach brings together scientists of different disciplines as well as representatives from industry with their far-reaching experience. This creates good conditions for a practical research approach and fast utilisation of results. Apart from that, the teams within the individual projects will have more opportunities than was previously the case to react to changing situations during the realisation phase. Even after the start of the project, for example, partners can be changed or new partners added. And small and middle-sized companies still have the chance today to work with SEAFOODplus. This particularly applies to innovative European companies that are interested in the implementation of new research results or technologies. They can contact the responsible parties directly via the SEAFOODplus website to apply for participation in individual projects.