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Students Cook Up Food Products of the Future

Some of the UK’s biggest food manufacturers are giving University of Ulster students the opportunity to develop new products for them.

The innovative project, which is open to students on the Consumer Studies BSc course, at the Coleraine campus, was the brainchild of new Visiting Professor and renowned food development expert, Grainne Allen.  

She persuaded six manufacturers - Bakkavor, Daniels, SK Food, Oscar Mayer, Irwins and Little Dish - to take part in the ‘live’ project involving first year students.

Grainne said: “This is a very exciting project where, for the first time, food manufacturers are giving students real briefs to work on and we’ve got some of the biggest names in the UK involved. These companies develop food products for Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks and Spencer.

“The students will have to be creative but also business-minded. They will be split into groups of four and each group will have a mentor from the company working with them.

“The students will sign non-disclosure agreements so that they maintain confidentiality. They will have to negotiate budgets, liaise directly with management teams from their allocated company and deliver comprehensive product strategies for areas as wide ranging as children's food to bakery.   

“There is the possibility that if these products are good enough, they could be developed and be on the shelves in the future.”

Grainne, originally from Maghera but now living in Bedfordshire, has 20 years experience in the food industry. She was snapped up by Marks and Spencer after completing her degree at the University of Ulster and spent 10 years with the High Street retailer.

“I travelled the world tasting the most amazing food - it was a fantastic job,” said Grainne, who launched the original M&S Healthy Choice range, rebranded as ‘Count on Us’.

She then moved into the supply and manufacturing side of the food industry to broaden her skill base and build her experience further working on small brands.  
Several years ago, Grainne set up consultancy firm, Rainmaker Innovation, alongside her husband. Currently, she works with Sainsbury’s mentoring its product development team as well as supporting on a number of key product strategies, including the re-launch of ‘Taste the Difference’ last year and the ‘Get the Nation Cooking’ initiative.

Grainne introduced Sainsbury’s to the University of Ulster and that relationship has flourished with the supermarket giant opening its graduate recruitment programme to Consumer Studies and Culinary Arts Management students this year. 

Sainsbury’s has also accredited the University’s sensory suite at the Coleraine campus, as the food-testing partner for its Northern Irish products.

Course Director of Consumer Studies BSc, Dr Desmond Hill, said: “The sensory suits provides a fantastic opportunity for the University and students, they are learning how to carry out sensory analysis on products which are currently on supermarket shelves.”

Head of Department, Dr Una McMahon-Beattie said: “Thanks to the hard work of our new Visiting Professor and Course Director, our students are being given opportunities to connect with people in the industry and work on live projects, with all the invaluable experience that brings.

“We are very fortunate to have Grainne Allen working with us. She has a unique level of experience across a broad spectrum which includes chilled, frozen, produce, baby food and confectionery and has run many multi-million pound product strategies in retail, manufacturing, food service and brand.

“She is highly sought after to mentor and advise senior managers and product developers in the food industry and to supply specific expert resources from her wealth of contacts. She is consistently in demand in the fields of innovation, best practice, strategy and change management.

“Grainne was the Marks and Spencer University sponsor and has always recommended the University of Ulster as a source of excellent candidates and proactively encouraging undergraduate and graduate placement.”

Caption: University of Ulster Course Director Dr Desmond Hill and new Visiting Professor Grainne Allen (centre) with students from the BSc Consumer Studies course at the Coleraine campus.