Biotechnology in food processing includes numerous traditional methods for making fermented foods and beverages such as bread, cheese, yogurt and wine. Many fermented food products are integral, nutritious components of diets around the globe and also generate income. A wealth of information was contributed to this conference on traditional fermented foods and beverages, particularly from West Africa and India. The importance of documenting this information was highlighted and it was noted that considerable work remains to be done in the documentation, characterisation and basic research of these traditional products and processes. The issues of control and variable quality of traditional fermentation processes were raised, and the use of well designed starter cultures was recommended. There was discussion of the merits and demerits of scaling up production processes through increased commercialisation and industrialisation. Potential loss of important food characteristics through standardisation of production processes was also addressed. It was suggested that there was potential for small-scale rural-based commercialisation that would build local capacity and ensure that the benefits from increased production were retained by the local communities in developing countries. It was recognised that modern biotechnologies, such as use of molecular typing to characterise microorganisms, could be successfully applied to traditional fermentation processes to improve understanding of these processes and improve product quality and consistency. However, potentially useful biotechnologies require adequate funds and education to be used effectively. There is a need for capacity building and to better integrate biotechnology in the food science and technology curricula of higher institutes of learning in developing countries. These were some of the main issues and outcomes of a moderated e-mail conference, entitled "Biotechnology applications in food processing: can developing countries benefit?" hosted by the FAO Biotechnology Forum from 14 June to 15 July 2004. Over 400 people subscribed to the conference and 68 messages were posted by 38 participants from 19 countries, with over 70% of the messages coming from people living in developing countries.
The theme of this 11th electronic conference of the FAO Biotechnology Forum, which took place from 14 June to 15 July 2004, was "Biotechnology applications in food processing: can developing countries benefit?". A Background Document was published before the conference began, aiming to give a short, easily-understandable overview of the application of biotechnology to the processing of food (including beverages) produced from agriculture. It provided an introduction to the subject, described the current status of biotechnology in food processing and, finally, considered some areas specifically relevant to developing countries.
The conference generated considerable interest, as shown by the large number of subscribers (411). Over the course of the conference, 68 messages were received from 38 participants, numbered in the order of posting. This Summary Document presents a synopsis of the main themes discussed during the conference based on the participants' messages. Specific references to posted messages are included, with an indication of the participants' names and message number. The individual messages can be consulted at the Archives of Conference 11
The number of potential areas where biotechnology can be applied to food processing is quite large. This was highlighted in the Background Document and also by Krishna (12), who provided an extensive list of such areas, most of which were discussed in the conference, including food preservation; isolation, identification and improvement of strains of food fermenting microorganisms; malolactic fermentation (for production of wines); lactic acid fermentation (milk products); preparation of food flavours; supply and maintenance of starter cultures; and exploitation of antioxidants, prebiotics and probiotics and production of single cell proteins.
The main themes of the discussions are given in Section 2 of this document under eight headings (2.1-2.8). Participation is summarised in Section 3, and Section 4 provides a list of the participants, with their country of work, who sent messages that are referenced here. Abbreviations used in this report are explained in Section 5.
2. Main themes discussed
2.1 The importance and diversity of fermented products
The conference highlighted the important contribution of fermented products to diets throughout the world, but particularly to those in developing countries. A diversity of products was described and discussed. Oyewole (4) drew attention to the importance of fermented foodstuffs in African diets, providing extensive details about a range of fermented foods and beverages across the entire continent. Fall (36) indicated that in some parts of West Africa, a fermented cereal-based gruel might be the first solid food a child eats. Muralidharan (6) described some traditional fermented breakfast foods in India (idli, dosa and appam), all made with rice flour as the main ingredient, pointing out that many of the fermented, steam-cooked foods are nutritious and recommended as part of the diet of convalescents. Hofman (5) furnished some information on traditional fermentation in Europe and Mathooko (9) provided details on fermented milk produced in East Africa. Wacher (59) suggested that the traditional fermented foods of Mexico, mostly based on maize, have been less well studied in comparison with those of other countries. Nuņez (31) reported that Peru also had many tasty and nutritious, traditional fermented foods and drinks. Sharma (24) described the use of some traditional fermentation methods in India and Bangladesh, such as those used for fermenting fish (iromba) and bamboo shoots. One advantage of such methods, he suggested, was that they increased the amount of food, by reducing wastage and, secondly, by making it possible to eat products which, if unprocessed, would not normally be suitable for human consumption.
Some fermented food products of regional importance were described. There are differences in production methods using the same plant species within a region that reflect the importance of local requirements and tastes. Sasu (27) suggested that for agbelima, a cassava dough used in Ghana, every family of cassava processor uses a different method to enhance features such as texture, taste and acceptability and that these methods were passed down from generation to generation. The features of gari, a fermented cassava product, were reported by Sasu (54) to depend on cassava variety and length of fermentation. Uzochukwu (40) and Edema (52) also described some of the different procedures used to make different kinds of gari, to suit individual and regional preferences. Hounhouigan (18) explained that in West Africa the same food product could also have different names in different villages, regions or countries, and suggested that the passage of traditional knowledge through generations was no longer as sure as before. Muralidharan (6) indicated that some traditional Indian breakfast foods tasted differently now that modern housewives used baker's yeast for the pancake batter rather than allowing natural fermentation to take place overnight. These examples illustrate the very particular character of many traditional food production processes, and indicate the difficulties that might be involved in scaling-up processes for an expanded market while attempting to maintain key characteristics of the product. In short, the attraction of many fermented food products for the consumer is that they have organoleptic characteristics unique to a process and producer.
2.2 Control and variable quality of traditional fermentation
A range of opinions existed as to whether traditional fermentations were controlled or not and the importance of developing well selected starter cultures was emphasised. Wuerthele (2) noted that the Background Document reported that traditional fermentation processes are uncontrolled and are dependent on microorganisms from the environment or the fermentation substrate for initiation of the fermentation processes and that such processes, therefore, result in products of low yield and variable quality. Edema (52) noted that what is sometimes referred to as variability in quality is actually a consequence of using different processes to suit individual preferences. Ouoba (10) highlighted the problem of variability in stability and nutritional quality of traditional fermented food. She proposed that the use of well selected starter cultures could help to solve the problem, citing the successful example of Bacillus subtilis starter cultures in Burkina Faso for soumbala, a fermented product from the African locust bean tree. These starters differed in type according to the proteolytic, lipolytic, saccharolytic and antimicrobial properties of the component Bacillus isolates. Consequently, the soumbala produced differed in character, depending on the starter, but had quite a high stability and nutritional quality. Gendel (64) also argued that use of well designed starter cultures would improve the consistency of fermented products as it would reduce one of the major sources of variability.
Hounhouigan (3) reported that many local fermentation processes relied on locally produced, and at times imported, starters, noting that "small scale traditional food producers know the efficiency of the use of starters and where it is possible, know how to develop and keep their own starter". This indicated an element of control over the fermentation reactions, although as Edema (30) wrote, attempts at using starter cultures for locally fermented foods usually resulted in a product with different properties, particularly their sensory attributes. Bhushan (11) saw an element of control in traditional fermentations and this view was echoed by Hofman (5), who reported that traditional processes did not necessarily result in products of low yield and variable quality. He suggested that well-adapted starters were able to provide strong process control, be it in a low technology environment of developing countries or a more sophisticated environment of developed countries. To support his remarks, he cited some examples including Asian fermented foods, based on solid fermentation technology with little or no control strategies, and Belgian gueuze beer, where spontaneous fermentation has resulted in a successful product since the Middle Ages. Hounhouigan (3), supported by Hofman (8), underlined the need to investigate the characteristics of some starters commonly used for some widely produced foods in Africa. Participants also noted the importance of developing starter cultures for scaling up production of traditional fermented foods (e.g. Oguntoyinbo, 58).
2.3 Documenting information about traditional fermented food
Throughout the conference, the importance of documenting information about traditional fermentation food and processes was highlighted (e.g. Krishna, 51). The need for further research into traditional fermented foods was also mentioned several times. Many foods and processes, it was suggested, were not sufficiently well characterised and modern methods of analysis, including biotechnological tools, could assist in this. For example, Edema (32) argued that not enough studies on the traditional fermentation processes had been done and that "detailed studies on these foods, their fermentation processes, the organisms involved and proper identification of the nutritional, organoleptic and aroma characteristics of the products are needed to form a strong scientific database for these foods". Hofman (61), supported by Bhushan (62), suggested that globalisation might displace much of the traditional foods and that there was an "urgent need for research, data collection and information distribution. The creation of regional data bases and culture collections has been proposed". Seth (66) saw an important role for international organisations, like FAO and the World Bank, to enable national, regional and international co-operation in areas such as this. Blanchfield (38) provided some details about a new food science and technology research project database created by FAO and the International Union of Food Science and Technology.
2.4 Scaling up production of traditional fermented foods
One of the main issues debated during the conference concerned the practicality and desirability of scaling up traditional processes of producing fermented foods. A distinction was made between commercialisation of food production, whereby small-scale producers might supply their products to expanded markets, and industrialisation of food production, representing a highly capital- and labour-intensive transformation of production processes. It was indicated that there could be many markets for fermented food products from several countries and that these markets could be national, regional or international.
Hofman (7, 49) questioned the desirability of industrialisation of the African food industry, mentioned by Oyewole (4), and was of the opinion that improved commercialisation of food production in the developing world represented a better option, as suggested by Olang'o (46). Hofman (49) pointed out that in the developed world, only 5% of the consumer price of food goes to the primary producer and suggested that industrialisation would be a bad choice in areas where a large proportion of the population earns its living from primary food production. Olang'o (46) considered that development of small-scale rural-based processing industries would help in developing countries, especially given that fermented food production generally did not require substantial capital investment. Krishna (50) also believed that promotion of village industries would improve employment and income prospects. Otieno (56) agreed with Olang'o (46) and suggested that "by introduction of simple biotechnology techniques, skills, equipment and technologies into the rural areas, this could form the beginnings of agriculture-led industrial development in Africa". Punchihewa (23) was more cautious about the potential benefits of moving applications of biotechnology from a non-commercial village setting to a commercial one. Muralidharan (6) stressed the need to evaluate the effects and benefits of scaling up production of traditional food preparations on their nutritive value, on traditional cuisine and on the community of small restaurateurs.
Rolle (55) and Mayer (57) emphasised the importance of taking an integrated approach to development of traditional fermentation processes, including raw material preparation, fermentation monitoring\control and product recovery. Owusu-Biney (67) suggested that Africans living in America and Europe represented a potentially lucrative market for fermented African foods, concluding "I believe there are commercial opportunities and there is the need for fermentation scientists and biotechnologists to engage industry in developing starter cultures for specific fermented foods which can be upstreamed for mass production and export of dry starter cultures". Muralidharan (6) also suggested that there was a large market for ready-to-eat commercially produced traditionally fermented Indian foods in India and elsewhere in the world.
Nishio (20) pointed out that commercial producers e.g. bread makers, would want to preserve their starters in the interests of maintaining the particular properties of their products. Regarding palm wine, Edema (30) acknowledged that the bottled and pasteurised product had a longer shelf-life than the fresh product, but the taste was not as good as when the yeasts were alive and active. The same occurred, she suggested, when extending the shelf-life of uncooked fufu paste by drying it into powder. Edema (30, 52) proposed that biotechnology applications might be best focused on new products rather than traditional ones, as biotechnology might alter the accepted taste and flavour of traditional products. Edema (30) considered it difficult to upgrade existing fermentation technologies in countries where infrastructure and services were not optimal. Krishna (51) emphasised the importance of infrastructure, in particular the provision of regular and sufficient power and water supply, for exploiting the benefits of food processing technologies. Mathooko (9) also suggested that, although food biotechnology has been used for a long time in the East African region, it might require a change of image (as well as the availability of funds) to make a commercial breakthrough in the region. This was supported by Krishna (51), who argued that the "documentation of the benefits of fermentation and fermented products are not well disseminated. Awareness creation, capacity building, training and establishment of food processing units might help in popularizing these technologies".
Oyewole (14) noted that in Burkina Faso, in addition to developing starter cultures for soumbala production, there had been improvements in traditional processing machineries and packaging of the product. These developments were aimed at small-scale producers and served to indicate how applied biotechnology could help such producers. Local knowledge of the fermentation processes is very important, but is not always taken into account when commercial production begins. In Kenya, the Maasai and Kalenjin have traditionally made sour milk, according to Mathooko (9), but Muchugi (16) noted that the fast growing Kenyan yogurt industry had not tapped into this indigenous knowledge, but instead had imported a lot of its starters.
2.5 Appropriateness of individual biotechnologies
The wide range of biotechnology tools that can be used in food processing was briefly summarised in the Background Document and some participants discussed the appropriateness of individual biotechnologies and their particular advantages and disadvantages when applied to food processing.
Early in the conference, Wuerthele (2) raised the issue of whether, and in which situations, genetically modified (GM) microorganisms might be beneficial in food processing, suggesting it would be useful to discuss the potential environmental, human health and socio-economic effects of use of commercial GM strains. Oyewole (4) pointed out that to date there had been little effort made to apply GM microorganisms for the production of African fermented foods, though their use was desirable. Uzochukwu (41), supported by Okoli (44), suggested that genetic modification of yeast could solve an important problem related to production of palm wine and that the current barriers to doing such kind of work were lack of funding (for expensive reagents and equipment) and lack of adequate awareness by scientists of the potential of modern methods. Edema (12) felt, however, that at least as far as Nigeria is concerned, it was too early for GMOs as more studies on the traditional fermentation processes were needed.
Hofman (5) indicated that GMOs would extend the range of available microorganisms for selection for particular processes but, because many successful fermentation processes involve mixed culture, he was unsure whether incorporating GMOs would increase efficiency. Nishio (19) envisaged a useful role for GMOs in fermentation processes, specifically to develop microorganisms more adapted to different environmental conditions (temperature, pH, concentrations of inhibitory metabolites etc.), while Gendel (64) argued that they could be introduced to improve performance and safety.
Ezeronye (13) felt that before thinking of genetic improvement and GMOs, the way to start improving the food fermentation industry in developing countries was "to be sure of the diversity of organisms involved and their individual roles in the process". He emphasised that, whereas in the past physiological tools had been employed to study the biodiversity of microorganisms involved in food fermentation, modern molecular tools could now be used. Oguntoyinbo (58), Gendel (64) and Owusu-Biney (67) advocated using molecular methods to identify useful and deleterious organisms in fermentation mixtures. Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) was suggested by Oguntoyinbo (58) to be a useful molecular typing technique for identifying beneficial and deleterious organisms in fermentation, allowing pathogens and microorganisms responsible for spoilage to be identified.
Wacher (59) agreed about the usefulness of the technique, reporting that it has been used for studying the microbiology of pozol, a fermented food from Mexico based on maize. DGGE allowed changes in the microbiota in a pozol ball to be monitored at different depths and over time. It allowed them to discover that Streptococcus was the dominant bacterial genus present throughout the fermentation and was the principal amylolytic lactic acid bacterium in the mixture. Unusual and unexpected microorganisms were also found. Molecular typing, as shown in the case of pozol, allows detailed microbiological analysis of the fermentation process and has implications for food hygiene and safety, allowing the entire fermentation process to be improved, as recommended by Rolle (55). Another illustration example of what such research can uncover was provided by Mayer (57), who referred to characterisation of microorganisms involved in solid state fermentation of cassava in Colombia. As a result of the research, it was determined that this fermentation, thought to involve many different microorganisms, could be achieved using a single strain of bacteria and that the time required for the process could be greatly reduced.
Single cell protein (SCP) refers to protein produced by microorganisms, particularly yeast, and used as either a feed or a food additive. Lal (15) discussed production of SCP and its possible use to address protein deficiency in humans and domestic livestock. He had, however, some questions about the environmental effects of SCP, and the need for safety regulations, given that many of the microorganisms had toxic cytoplasmic compounds. Krishna (21) suggested that there were standard procedures available to reduce toxic factors in SCP production and that extensive safety evaluation was carried out to ensure a high quality end product. Edema (32) suggested that waste materials themselves might be used to produce SCP for livestock feed, thereby releasing protein rich foods for human consumption and simultaneously reducing pollution. On a related issue, Lal (34) noted that rumen microorganisms synthesised relatively large amounts of protein in the rumen and wondered, inter alia, whether they could be exploited by biotechnology to increase the protein supply from poor quality foods. Hofman (35) noted that the rumen environment could be created in vitro but (37) advised caution in conducting experiments in this area as rumen fluid contains many fungi and protozoa, some of which are not inoffensive when swallowed by humans.
2.6 Education and capacity building
Education in food processing and the application of biotechnology was thought by some participants to be a weak point, particularly in developing countries, and the importance of capacity building was highlighted in the conference. There was a call for improvements to be made to the curricula of universities to emphasise biotechnology and its application. Among others, this was highlighted by Olang'o (46), Kingamkono (48), Oyewole (53), Otieno (56) and Oguntoyinbo (58). Oyewole (53) specifically called for incorporation of food biotechnology oriented courses into undergraduate programmes of food scientists and for post-graduate programmes in food biotechnology. Otieno (56) agreed with Olang'o (46) that there should be more emphasis on biotechnology, especially molecular biology, in the food science and technology curricula in African universities. Oguntoyinbo (58) saw biotechnology as a "major key to food productivity and empowerment" and he thought there was limited awareness about its potential in most developing countries. Obstacles he saw were poor services and infrastructure, detailed earlier by Krishna (51), especially energy, and funding, where he suggested that a regional approach, covering, for example, similar West African fermented foods, could reduce costs and avoid unnecessary duplication. He proposed forming an international biotechnology and culture collection centre, that would also create strategy for science-based enterprises. Wacher (59) liked this regional approach.
Uzochukwu (41) emphasised the need for large scale re-training of scientists in DNA manipulation techniques so that developing countries would not be left behind in the biotechnology revolution. Similarly, Oguntoyinbo (58) advocated training and re-training of personnel in universities and research institutes as the key to teaching of biotechnology and advancement in biotechnology. Ezeronye (13), stressing the need for laboratory equipment, and Olutogun (42) noted that low capacity prevented effective use of beneficial biotechnology. Oguntoyinbo (58) similarly noted that "most techniques in biotech require good laboratory work with modern equipment to cope with. Most of these facilities are still absent in universities and research institutes in most developing countries".
2.7 Food safety and human health
Participants discussed the safety of traditional fermentation processes, in terms of hygiene and consequences for human health (e.g. Krishna, 12). Nuņez (31) pointed out that two traditional fermented Peruvian drinks, chicha de jora and chicha de molle, respectively made from maize and a small fruit, could contain toxins, including furfural compounds and formaldehyde. Olusegun (39) indicated that food-borne diseases represented a major global health problem and that there was the need for "work and documentation on safety aspects of African fermented foods". Edema (30) felt that "the nutritional characteristics (and safety aspects) of most of the fermented foods in Africa are adequately documented and appreciated in developing countries although more can still be done". Bhushan (11) noted that when the fermentation is over, the downstream processing could affect the quality of the product and result in health hazards. Wacher (59) illustrated how application of molecular typing to a typical fermented product could be used to identify and monitor the presence of harmful microorganisms. Gendel (64) also argued that well designed starters could reduce the possibility of pathogen growth in the fermented product.
On the other hand, there was also discussion about the potential positive human health impacts of applying biotechnology to food processing. Kingamkono (48) reported results suggesting that consumption of specific fermented products could enhance protection against diarrhoeal diseases through reducing the levels of faecal enteropathogenic bacteria. Muralidharan (6) noted that many of the traditional fermented steam-cooked foods were recommended for convalescents in India. Olang'o (46) underlined the potential application of biotechnology to food processing in the food-medicine interface, specifically in production of functional foods and nutraceuticals that might, for instance, be developed for HIV/AIDS patients. Sharma (47) supported Olang'o (46), considering this to be "perhaps the most fertile area for development in food biotechnology" and went on to mention production of probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics and food additives. He cited the potential value of high lutein eggs for prevention of cataracts but noted that, although nutraceuticals is potentially an important field for developing countries, they "have to take up a number of steps, including investment in research and development, development of educative programmes through the mass media and putting in place a good regulatory and monitoring systems before letting such products onto the markets".
2.8 Intellectual property rights (IPR) and traditional knowledge
Benhura (45) argued that operation of the patent system was heavily weighted against discoverers of a novel product or process because they were often unable to meet the financial requirements of registering and maintaining the validity of a patent and, as a result, "many academics in African institutions give up about applying for patents". He noted that many African universities did not have a policy on this issue and he highlighted the problem of ownership of IPR for a discovery based on indigenous knowledge, but requiring intellectual input. Krishna (51) stated that in these cases the benefits accruing from IPR should be shared with the indigenous communities. The potential commercial benefits of exploiting indigenous knowledge/products, was highlighted by Muchugi (16), referring to traditional sour milk production of the Maasai community in Kenya. Wacher (59) indicated that Mexican law required authorisation to use Mexican biological resources and that authorization could only be granted with the consent of the owner of the place where the biological resource was to be extracted. In addition, the owner should be informed how the biological resource was to be used and also had the right to an equitable share of the economic benefit that might result from the studies or use of the resource. She noted that, although procedures are well established for wild flora and fauna, the situation regarding traditional knowledge and resources such as fermented foods was less clear, the main problem being to decide who should give the consent and receive the economic share.
3. ParticipationThe conference ran for four weeks from 14 June to 15 July 2004, and 411 people subscribed. Sixty-eight messages were received in total from 38 participants from 19 countries. Twenty-eight of the participants were living in developing countries and ten in developed countries. Among the developing country participants, the majority were living in Africa, particularly West Africa. Of the 17 participants living in Africa, seven were in Nigeria. Asia was the second biggest contributor, with six participants from India. Roughly two thirds of the messages came from people working in universities (31 messages) or research centres, including CGIAR centres. The remainder came from people working as consultants, for farmer organisations, government agencies, NGOs, UN organisations or the private sector.
4. Name and country of participants with referenced messagesBenhura, Mudadi. Zimbabwe
CGIAR = Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research; DGGE = Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis; FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; GMOs = Genetically modified organisms; IPR = Intellectual property rights; SCP = Single cell protein
6. AcknowledgementsWarm thanks are extended to all the participants in this conference for taking the time and effort to share their thoughts and opinions on the applications of biotechnology to food processing in developing countries.
Published by FAO, 2 August 2005.
Recommended citation for this publication:
FAO. 2005. Biotechnology applications in food processing: can developing countries benefit? Summary Document to Conference 11 of the FAO Biotechnology Forum (14 June to 15 July 2005): http://www.fao.org/biotech/logs/C11/summary.htm