Information about the food industry

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1.1 Description, turnover, growth, employment

The food, drink and milk industry is the leading sector of industrial activity in the EU, with a total production value amounting to EUR 593 billion in 2000. The industry produces both finished products destined for consumption and intermediate products destined for further processing. A sectoral breakdown in the EU shows that for most food, drink and milk product categories production exceeds consumption. Average real annual growth rates of consumption and production are slow; a typical trend of mature markets, e.g. growth during 1997 was less than 2 %. In employment terms, the food-processing sector employs a workforce of 2.7 million. This represents 11 % of the industrial workforce in Europe.

Data of some European countries are presented in the following tables:

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More detailed figures for the total quantities and values of production in the major sectors in food processing sectors according to Eurostat (1999) are summarised in the table below:

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1.2 Industry structure

Available statistics show that the EU food, drink and milk industry comprises close to 26000 companies, most of which have over 20 employees. The EU food, drink and milk industry is exceptionally diverse compared to many other industrial sectors. This diversity can be seen in terms of the size and nature of companies that exist throughout the EU; the wide range of raw materials, products and processes and the countless combinations of each, and the demands of consumers, both for homogenised global products and at the same time demands for numerous specialist or traditional products on national and even regional scales. The industry is also subject to very diverse local economic, social and environmental conditions, and varying national food legislations. The EU food, drink and milk industry is quite fragmented with a high incidence (ca. 92 %) of small and medium sized companies, although there are some sectors, such as sugar manufacturing, which have very large plants. This fragmentation and diversity makes it difficult to ascertain exact figures for the industry as a whole. Also, although it is certain that the concentration of the industry remains weak in contrast to other sectors, it remains difficult to ascertain exact figures due to divergent data collection systems in individual States. The industry is spread all over Europe. Food industrial plants can be found in very industrialised regions as well as in rural areas. Traditionally, industrial production has been closely related to primary food production, with natural resources (e.g. land, water), climate and actual requirements of the particular production technique heavily influencing the structure and geographical location of specific industrial production. Although this kind of dependence is being reduced it still holds true in many sectors. For example, some sectors are still concentrated in special regions, e.g. fish processing is usually found in countries (or regions) which have direct access to the sea and traditions of fishing; and vegetable oil from olives is mainly manufactured in Mediterranean countries, especially in Andalucía in Spain. Whilst other activities such as sugar production/refining, grain milling or dairy industries are found in all countries. Some food production activities have special requirements of the natural resources, such as that the water must be of drinking water quality, or the availability of media such as rural land for the beneficial disposal of by-products or receiving waters for the discharge of large volumes of treated effluent. This is, for instance, the case with sugar plants, refineries, fruit and vegetable preservation plants, which are normally situated near to water.

1.3 Trade

For many European enterprises, non-European exports constitute an important strategic activity. In 2001, food, drink and milk industry exports amounted to EUR 45 billion (79 % of European global exports of agricultural and food products). This is a slight decrease over 1998 figures. The main export market for European food products remains the United States, but the Swiss, Japanese and even Russian markets are also significant.

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1.4 Market forces (demand, distribution and competition)

An ever increasing number of social and economic factors affect food, drink and milk consumption patterns throughout the EU. These have led to some diversification from traditional consumption and purchasing models. However, although in recent years European consumers have developed greater homogeneity in lifestyles, which is reflected in the consumption and purchasing patterns for a growing variety of goods, food still retains, albeit with some exceptions, elements of cultural specificity linked to specific national or regional traditions. So although consumers want to be able to purchase the same items and quality of foodstuffs throughout the whole of the EU they also demand the option/choice of different foodstuffs linked to their own tradition or culture. This demand can be for foodstuffs of a national, regional or even more local level and can also vary at specific times throughout the year, e.g. seasonal variations.


In general, cost control activities (e.g. labour saving technologies, improvements in logistics and distribution channels, resource saving practices) have become a necessity in order to preserve producers’ profit margins in highly competitive markets. In particular, distributors are squeezing producers’ margins to their advantage by introducing private label goods. In general, most food, drink and milk products tend to be distributed to the major retail chains, although substantial differences persist within EU countries.


As is the case with most mature markets, the food, drink and milk sector is facing sharp competitive pressure and progressive market concentration. In fact, even if great fragmentation still persists in most EU countries, the size and corresponding economic strength of companies is becoming crucial for balancing the increasing bargaining power of retailers and achieving the minimal “critical mass” in terms of production volumes.

1.5 The importance of food safety in the food, drink and milk industry

The mission of the food, drink and milk industry is to provide consumers with safe, high quality and wholesome foodstuffs. Food safety is of the prime concern and must remain an absolute and non-negotiable priority for all food businesses at every stage of the food supply chain. Consumers in a single market are entitled to expect and receive common standards of hygiene and safety in comparable circumstances within and between Member States, regardless of where they purchase their food or where it has been produced. As a matter of principle, all food businesses, regardless of their size, geographical location or point in the food chain (from primary production to sale to the final consumer, including all catering outlets) must meet the highest food safety standards. To ensure that the overall burden of legislative requirements on smaller businesses remains proportionate to the risk to food safety, it is vital that this 'integrated' whole chain approach is coupled with the appropriate application and enforcement of the law based on sound HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) principles. The responsibility for ensuring food safety is maintained at every stage of the food chain but the food safety can only be ensured if all the players collaborate closely. The food, drink and milk industry has identified five key areas that can ensure day-to-day food safety:

1. Improved food safety systems:
Full quality assurance systems are available but must be regularly updated according to technological and scientific progress. Today, companies are putting in place procedures to further improve these systems. HACCP methodology is now the accepted standard in food hygiene. It constitutes the international standard in Codex Alimentarius and is included in EU legislation.
2. Traceability:
Traceability systems were originally developed as a tool to deal with product liability, but have since been significantly improved over time. Traceability is a fundamental requirement of all Quality Management Systems. ISO 9001:2000 and HACCP certification both require documented procedures which can ensure product identification, from the purchasing of the starting materials, through the whole production process, and on word through to shipment to the retailer/consumer.
3. Crisis management:
Procedures are under improvement both at a company and association level. CIAA is currently developing a crisis management manual.
4. Risk identification:
The industry actively participates in the identification, evaluation and tracking of any existing risks, and any sign of new risks, in food. Here, industry has a key role to play in providing data and a platform for the discussion and evaluation of data.
5. Communication:
The industry recognises that communication is an important factor but also that it is difficult to implement. Several initiatives are currently underway being undertaken to improve communication and thereby the understanding of the general public. The same safety objective is also shared by the feed chain from primary production to sales to livestock producers, including food businesses producing feed materials and the compound feed industry). Quality management systems developed on the basis of ISO 9001and ISO 9002 have been established in the feed chain and require the implementation of HACCP, which should become mandatory within the framework of the recast of the feed legislation and in particular the establishment of a new feed hygiene regulation.

1.6 Legislative framework for food, drink and milk products

Protection of the consumer and of the environment, and the elimination of obstacles to the free movement of goods are among the main concerns of EU food, drink and milk legislation. The EU legislative framework is based on horizontal measures across product categories as well as on commodity-specific so-called vertical measures, derived from the agricultural policy or the agri-monetary system. Besides the general (e.g. financial, environmental, health and safety etc.) legislation, the food, drink and milk industry is also controlled by specific very detailed and comprehensive legislation starting at the farm gate and ending on the dinner plate. This legislation covers the following main areas:

  • food and feed safety (contaminants, pesticide residues, quality of water intended for food consumption, official control of foodstuffs, materials in contact with foodstuffs)
  • food and feed hygiene (general rules, health rules concerning foodstuffs of animal origin)
  • food and feed composition (additives, flavourings, processing aids, GMOs)
  • consumer information (general labelling rules, quantitative ingredient declaration, lot identification, unit pricing)
  • food and feed nutrition, food and feed labelling
  • ionisation
  • organic production
  • others

For more detailed information on food legislation in the European Union, see CIAA status report, issue of April 2001. [3, CIAA, 2001] Section 17 includes some selected legislation on the environment. Obviously, other pieces of environmental legislation are also valid for the industry (e.g. 98/83/EC Directive on the quality of water for human consumption). Some specific EU legislation and national legislation are also discussed (e.g. legislation on odour control) in the relevant chapters. Annex 1 also includes some information about national legislation in EU countries.

1.7 The FDM sector and the environment

The FDM sector often depends on the quality of natural resources, especially that of land and water, so preserving the environment in which the raw materials are grown is very important. The level of pollution in waste water and the amount of waste produced by the industry can represent a significant load in some countries or regions. While most emissions from the industry are biodegradable, some sectors use materials such as salt or brine which are resistant to conventional treatment methods and can introduce, e.g. pesticide residues used on the source crop. Traditionally, in many European countries, the sector has not been heavily regulated by environmental legislation. There is now a trend towards focusing on proactive environmental management systems, natural resource conservation and performance on waste minimization techniques. To ensure sustainability, the effects of the raw material supply, food processing, transport, distribution, preparation and disposal must be considered and controlled. Both primary production and processing are critically dependent upon a reliable water supply and adequate water quality, in conformity with legal requirements. Many FDM companies have implemented an Environmental Management System (EMS) and some are certified or in the process of being certified to ISO 14001 or the EU-15 Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). In 2003, the FDM sector had the highest number of EMAS registered organizations in any sector and represented 9% of all EMAS registered organizations.

Key environmental issues

Water consumption, air pollutants such as dust, VOC’s and odour, noise and solid outputs from FDM installations are typical key environmental issues for the FDM sector. The FDM sector is dependent on energy for processes required for freshness and food safety. Mechanical processing, e.g. raw material preparation and sizing, and thermal processing, e.g. dehydration, are the most commonly used techniques for food preservation and processing. Both require significant amounts of energy. Process heating used approximately 29% of the total energy used in the FDM sector. Process cooling and refrigeration accounts for about 16% of the total energy used. The table below shows the key environmental issues for some FDM sectors.

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Food, drink and milk manufacturing is a diverse sector using numerous individual processes. There are huge variations even in the production of similar food products. For example, cheese making or, sausage production may be very different depending on the local conditions and needs. All processes used in the sector cannot be described in detail in this document, but the BREF covers a very wide range in the whole sector as is possible. For this purpose, major processing techniques and unit operations applied in the sector are presented in the following.

2.1 Overview of processing techniques and unit operations

The most commonly used processing techniques and unit operations in the food, drink and milk industry are given in Table 2.1 below. The process techniques mentioned might not be applicable in all sub-sectors. This list of processing techniques is clearly not exhaustive. The raw materials used by the food, drink and milk industry are natural products, which may vary from season to season and from year to year. It may therefore be necessary to adapt production processes to accommodate the changes in characteristics of the raw materials.

Unit operations in FDM industries with energy saving potentials, where solar thermal energy systems may be applied are listed below:

  • cleaning
  • drying
  • evaporation and distillation
  • blanching
  • pasteurisation
  • sterilization
  • cooking
  • other process heating
  • general process heating
  • heating of production halls
  • cooling of production halls
  • cooling processes
  • melting
  • extraction
  • bleaching

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1: Information from: BAT for Food, Drink and Milk Industries, May 2003