Blog by Jesper Zeilund, Nordic Center for Local Food

FOOD EVOLUTION: From food safety to culinary value

The time has come to look beyond the size of headquarter and number of productions lines when measuring success in the food industry. We need the courage to expand our range of values and to challenge the mindset that has been dominating the business for the last 60 years. In the long run, this is the only way to stay competitive in Denmark.

In my view, the Danish food cluster – from production to processing and research – is all too tightly anchored to thinking only in industrial terms. We are trying to build the future in confidence that more of the same is the way forward. We keep pulling the same profiles on to the stage for expert advising. We are setting tomorrow’s strategy based on the figures from yesterday. But the world moves on. And, although food safety is a very important parameter for competition, we need to dare ask ourselves: Will we survive on a stubborn insistence on being the world champions in uniform bulk production only? Is this really the only discipline we want to compete in?

The small and unique are tomorrow’s heroes

Look for highly inspirational energy and foresight among the small and medium-sized food companies. They display great effort and ability to develop new products and even alternative, economically sustainable business models. To me, they are the true heroes of tomorrow.

I am not talking about a farm shop with a small pickling business on the side, but some seriously potent creators of growth among the SMEs. A lot of new businesses are ambitious and growth-oriented. They are not afraid that their company becomes a large-scale artisanal production in the way we know it from, say, wine and cured ham production in Italy and Spain.

Investing in piles of stainless steel, conveyor belts, a big headquarter and a large number of production lines is neither a necessity for nor a hindrance to success – it is just not the only parameter for success. Characteristic to these companies is a considerably expanded concept of quality, and a courage to use high culinary value as a crucial benchmark.

My favorite example is the Danish Frederiksdal Estate. They have added enough knowledge and finesse to their primary product that they can now export cherry wine made from Danish sour cherries to large parts of the world. The recipe is: Add knowledge, soul and hard work; Give the primary product as much value as possible – quality, emotional appeal, uniqueness – to make the product differ from the average market in any parameter.

Culinary or industrial?

So, in other words, this question is set wrong. Having both a culinary and an industrial focus is no contradiction.

Look at the French Champagne Ardenne region: We all know the region’s culinary high-value product. But if you look beyond the Champagne grape fields you will find a huge bulk production of grains, potatoes (for French fries), and vegetables. It’s a century-old set-up, and together this makes a collective of a high level of knowledge in all fields as well as range of related industries: Machinery, packaging, knowledge, marketing, branding and so forth.

The same could be the case in Denmark. Combining the enormous knowledge base extracted from the last fifty years of industrial food production with a culinary and gastronomic understanding could lift the entire industry to a whole new level. It seems too obvious to even write it.

The Jacobsen brand of Carlsberg, the Unika series from Arla, and the export adventures of the Danish Crown brand Friland are all examples that the one does not exclude the other. It’s not about bulk or niche. Rather, it’s about doing both. But I see no real signs that the established food cluster dares lifting its eyes.

Trends start small – and we just started

Let us recall the organic market twenty-five years ago. I remember a rather alternative store in town selling a few organic groceries and some faded leeks and that was the organic supply in a mid-sized provincial town. As you know, it is quite a different situation now.

Then, on one hand, let’s consider niche products, food items with history and identity, even customer related culinary experiences, as not only an alternative but also as a future-oriented and value-crating supplement to our Danish focus on bulk production. Look then, on the other hand, at the high demand for unique quality, ‘local food’, gastronomic niche products, sophisticated convenience products and so on which is growing in Denmark as well as globally. Ignoring this obvious link is simply foolish.

Involving the entire sector

We must dare to invest in a new mindset. Niche products, quality-boosting, and the discipline of experience economy need to be implemented in the entire value chain by encouraging natural cross-disciplinary work and knowledge sharing. We are talking about the education system in the whole food sector, the farming business, the retail sector, the craft-based vocational training, and, not least, the entire culinary sector including chefs and the private and public food service industry.

The industry and educational institutions will have to come together to create a clear strategy for the food cluster – to re-invent itself and its potential for growth as a culinary food cluster. The strategy will include the necessary knowledge, ways of finance, and not least the access to the considerable public money pools in Denmark and in the EU. In addition, the research needs to take responsibility for their part and pay adequate attention to a niche and customer-oriented market in the same manner as it did for many years to industrial large-scale production.

Finally, and not least, there is the issue of employment in the food business in general. jobs stay fragile in the large industrial complexes. A quality-focused local niche production may not create 30.000 jobs and a two-digit million revenue. But it has the potential to create long-lasting jobs, most often situated in the outermost regions.

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About the author

Blog by Jesper Zeilund
Executive Senior Advisor, Nordic Center for Local Food


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