Consumers deserve the best – even if it’s seaweed. Two North East firms are on the case

[UK] Most of us have become far more savvy about food quality and provenance.

Granted, not everyone cares where there food comes from or what it’s made of, just as long as it’s reasonably cheap and tastes all right.

But a growing number of Brits are taking more interest in what they eat, if only for the sake of their children.

It’s no bad thing. Fill up on too many calorie-rich, sugary, salty and over-processed foods and it doesn’t take a genius to explain the outcome.

You won’t quite grind to a halt like a petrol car topped up with diesel, but you’ll certainly start to feel sluggish and in need of some TLC.

This newfound awareness has to a large degree been forced upon us.

In recent years the food industry has had to weather mad cow disease, foot and mouth, criticism of its reliance on sugar and salt, Jamie Oliver’s tirade over the poor quality of school dinners, e-coli outbreaks, the undeclared use of nuts and, of course, the horse meat fiasco.

Traceability is the new industry and buyer buzz word.

Food manufacturers and retailers desperate to rebuild customer confidence have gone all out to prove their farm to fork credentials.

Meanwhile, shoppers have started flexing their buying muscles. They want to know that their 100% prime British Aberdeen Angus beefburger is what it says on the pack.

DNA testing (once the preserve of crime thrillers and US-imported cop shows), especially of meat products, has now become the norm, feeding the public’s growing appetite for food chain checks.

Now an alliance between two North East businesses has led to a global breakthrough in the field of extraction and authentication of DNA in seaweed and related products.

In short, it means it’s now possible to ensure seaweed is what it claims to be.

It might not seem a big deal being able to prove that seaweed is a greeny brown marine algae and a major slip hazard on rocky beaches when the tide goes out.

After all, it’s unlikely to be appearing on many people’s plates when they sit down to their evening meal.

Except that’s not quite true. Certainly your average lump of chewy seaweed is never likely to replace broccoli, spinach and green beans alongside the Sunday roast.

But seaweed appears in a surprising number of popular everyday foods. Many varieties are rich in gelatin-like alginates, which are used as a setting agent.

And seaweed is a nutrient-rich, natural flavour enhancer and salt substitute used in everything from bread and pizzas to ready meals, soups and biscuits.

The food industry just prefers not to shout about it.

An increasingly important player in the supply of dried seaweed to food manufacturers is Dr Craig Rose.

He set up the aptly named Seaweed and Co just over 12 months ago. Fittingly based not far from North Shields Fish Quay, Craig is a marine biologist specialising in seaweed.

Married with three children, the 37-year-old originally worked in marine and environmental consultancy, but became increasingly drawn towards research being done into the uses of seaweed, whether as a green biofuel or for its nutritional and health benefits.

He set up Seaweed and Co to advise on the uses of this natural food and supply dried Hebridean harvested egg wrack through distributors in the US and Europe.

The fledgling business has taken off. So much so that Seaweed and Co has reached the finals of this year’s Journal North East Business Awards, in the Newcomer of the Year category.

He will find out on March 10 if his venture has done enough to win him the title.

But Seaweed and Co is certainly proving a winner with the food industry. It’s one of the reasons Craig was keen to work with Cramlington-based Geneius Laboratories to develop the world’s first commercial seaweed DNA authentication for his product.

A seaweed harvesting vessel owned by the Hebridean Seaweed Co
A seaweed harvesting vessel owned by the Hebridean Seaweed Co

These two North East success stories are pooling their knowledge to think up a clever new procedure that will, in the long-term, benefit the food industry and the consumer.

It will also give Seaweed and Co an edge in its field, explains Craig.

“It allows us to offer another level of traceability and confidence. The horse meat scandal pushed traceability to the forefront for the food industry and this DNA test allows us to be ahead of the game.

“One of the key barriers to more sales is the confidence by customers in knowing what seaweed is and where it is from.

“Seaweed as a food and ingredient is a new concept to many. Overcoming the barriers is in part to demonstrate our seaweed is safe, high quality and a traceable product.

“Being able to prove a product is exactly what we say it is by using DNA analysis is hugely advantageous and prevents contamination with inferior types and sources of seaweeds further along the supply chain.

“The techniques developed with Geneius allow us to lead the world in this type of authentication, and we are already seeing interest and sales increase through our distribution networks around the world.”

Within the food testing industry, Geneius Laboratories is the UK market leader in investigative microbiology using bespoke DNA analysis. It has an international customer base.

The firm’s commercial director, Ian Howe, says the partnership with Seaweed and Co is typical of the way they work and has resulted in Geneius being the “go to DNA analytical partner for technical teams across Europe.

“Geneius is particularly proud of its North East roots and therefore the work we have done with Seaweed and Co has been a particularly interesting development as it has stretched our boundaries whilst bringing unique commercial differentiation to another North East partner.”

The seaweed being tested is not local.

While the North East has its share of seaweed, it is not sustainable like that harvested in the Outer Hebrides.

And seaweed that is destined for human consumption needs to be grown in pristine conditions. A number of rivers drain into the North Sea, bringing sediment with them.

Our oceans have also become a dumping ground for industrial and domestic waste. Seaweed’s ability to absorb contaminants means it is introduced into polluted waters to help clean them.

Craig says: “In the Outer Hebrides there is an abundance of seaweed growing in unpolluted waters, and there is also an historical seaweed industry.

“Our seaweed is harvested in a sustainable way and goes straight to the factory where it is dried and milled for either animal feed or human consumption.”

But it may not be long before the North East has a seaweed industry it can be proud of.

Craig is currently working with both Durham and Newcastle Universities on a research project based next to Lynemouth Power Station on the Northumberland coast, developing sea lettuce for the consumer market.

The scheme is looking at ways to cultivate quality seaweed sustainably in tanks on land.

Craig hopes within the next six months the project will have developed enough for the sea lettuce to hit the open market, adding another innovative top quality product to the North East’s burgeoning local food range.

The hope is that restaurants will pick up on it as well as the supermarket chains.

DNA analysis will play an important part in winning over the food industry and the public to an ingredient that wouldn’t top most people’s shopping list.

But Craig says sea lettuce is an attractive proposition – especially for those who want to take advantage of seaweed’s many well-documented health benefits but aren’t ready to eat a slab of kelp.

“Sea lettuce is a wonderful vibrant green, is highly nutritious and doesn’t taste too marine-y. You can eat it raw and it’s very delicate. It can be added to salads like normal lettuce or soups and stews,” says Craig.

“DNA testing will be essential in helping to win people over and Geneius is best placed for that. They are the experts in the field.

“We can tell a customer everything from the batch number to the guy who harvested it and now add the DNA authentication in as well.

“Our processing techniques and unique technologies mean we have a product that is superior on key quality measures as compared to other suppliers, and now we can even guarantee our seaweed is exactly what we say it is using DNA analysis, which no-one else can do.”

 

View original article at: Consumers deserve the best – even if it’s seaweed. Two North East firms are on the case

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