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M&S Technologist: A vision of food sector's future

02 August 2011

EXCLUSIVE An FP Express interview with John Quinn, food technologist for traditional meals, gastropub and bistro

Could you describe your role within Marks & Spencer?
I currently work in the Meal Solutions category as part of the buying team for Traditional, Gastro pub and Bistro, the role is I carry out is of a Food Technologist and the main roles are to maintain the quality and safety of the products that are produced in the supply base for M&S. Having the highest quality products is something we are hugely proud of so a fair percentage of the week is involved with monitoring and improving quality of finished products and raw materials used in the manufacture of the product(s).

What is your view on the current state of the UK food manufacturing industry?
Overall the manufacturing standards have improved since I began work 15 years ago. You only have to look at the various products across the retailers to see genuine innovation. However reading various industry journals and listening to suppliers there is a reticence to invest in new technologies owing to what they perceive as a lack of long term commitment from the retail end. Also investment seems to require a two-year payback which is quite short and virtually puts most investment on hold. It hasn't been helped by the current economic climate

What are your requirements when it comes to food manufacturers?
At M&S we have a procedure in place to assess any potential new suppliers to ensure both parties can make a reasonable judgment early in the approval process to ensure our standards of quality, safety and governance can be met. We have two audits that need to passed for supply to commence, they're a hygiene audit and a PPC (Product and Process Control) audit.

Where do you think food manufacturers in the UK could improve?
Overall as I alluded to the UK food industry has improved dramatically over my time in the industry, you just have to look in any of the retailers and you can see the wide variety of products on display. I think most of us have visited other retailers overseas and the difference is clear to see. However, I feel having been on both sides of the fence, both retail and industry, that when it comes to new ideas and innovation in processing/production that there is reticence to embrace new ideas and wait and see if new innovation are adopted by other suppliers. This is a generalisation but my experience has been one of caution and ROI.

What are your views on the food machinery manufactured in the UK?
I think - and I have only been focussed on this for several years, that we may have some way to go in catching up in this area. Within in the chilled food industry the techniques and equipment for heating, cooling, depositing, while fit for purpose, have not really developed much since the chilled meals category was invented back in the '70s. As an example most of the automation/robotic companies seem to be European with agents based in the UK. I've also alluded to in a recent presentation that the equipment isn't always necessarily fit for purpose and ultimately doesn't deliver. A one solution fits all is not the case.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?
On a day-to-day basis it is maintaining the high standards of quality products customers expect from M&S. But on the subject of manufacturing equipment and suppliers it would be trying to manage the implementation of automation/robotics/novel techniques within a chilled food industry which to a certain extent is slightly sceptical about the flexibility of some the solutions on offer. I think both sides need to address what are the real requirements. I keep hearing one main theme of flexibility.

How important are training and skills to the food industry?
I think it goes without saying that they are vital as the industry is more complex and varied than ever however the fundamental basics of what is required to run a factory technically have not changed. We are however as an industry starting to see less people looking to a career in food production.

Do you have a vision of how the food industry will look in 20 years?
Twenty years is a long time in the future but I think the industry will be much more efficient in it methods of production/assembly of chilled ready meals. I would suggest that manual assembly of the chilled ready meals will be assembled by automation/robotic solutions. The reason for envisioning this is to remain a viable industry against rising costs, in virtually, all components of a ready meal, the chilled meals manufacturing base will need to innovate to remain competitive to the customer that buys the products. Already some raw materials price rises are pushing some products (albeit a few) to a stage were the customer will baulk at the price, regardless of quality. The chilled food industry production process will be managed and serviced by a team rather than packing product by hand.

Is there anything you'd like to add?
We need better dialogue between all concerned in the manufacturing/processing part of the supply chain. We are constantly looking to innovate so please come and discuss your ideas with us!

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