In 1926, the Commonwealth Government created the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the body that later became CSIRO. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of this event, several functions were held throughout Australia last year. One of these, organised by AIFST NSW Branch Food Microbiology Group and the Australian Society for Microbiology Food Microbiology Special Interest Group, presented an historical survey of the work of CSIRO scientists in food microbiology.
Dr Michael Eyles, CEO of Food Science Australia, pointed out that 'food investigations' was one of five areas considered to have priority in the programme of CSIRO in 1926.
Dr John Christian, formerly chief of the CSIRO Division of Food Research and chairman of the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods, reviewed the history of food microbiology research in Australia and noted that food microbiology grew out of dairy microbiology.
According to Dr. Christian, CSIRO has made major contributions to the microbiology of cheese manufacture. Much early CSIRO research was also focused on psychrophilic micro-organisms that spoil chilled meat; more recently attention has been directed to pathogenic organisms.
"A major theme in CSIRO food microbiology programmes", said Dr Christian, "has been the water relations of spoilage organisms and pathogens". This work pioneered by W J Scott and continued by Dr Christian and his colleagues led to the conclusion that water activity rather than water content is the best prediction of the nature of microbial growth in food.
The work on water relations led to research on food mycology by Dr John Pitt and Dr Ailsa Hocking. Both have earned international recognition and have shared their knowledge in a book on food spoilage fungi and in numerous other publications. Basic studies, such as revision of the taxonomy of the genus Penicillium, have been conducted in parallel with investigations of food industry problems, e.g. on xerophilic moulds, mycotoxins and preservative resistant yeasts.
Keith Richardson talked about food technology and safety particularly recalling experience with the canning industry. He described deficiencies in canning practice which led to 40 per cent of canned food spoilage investigated by CSIRO being due to under-processing and the next mainly due to post-processing contamination through leaky seams. CSIRO, in conjunction with Hawkesbury Agricultural College, as it then was, initiated training courses for government inspectors and retort operators and encouraged the drawing up of codes of practice for canning processes.
"Canning of low-acid foods is technologically demanding," said Mr Richardson, "Yet the canning industry has a commendable safety record. In the last 60 years only two cases of botulism attributed to canned foods have been reported."
Winding up the meeting, Dr Eyles forecast future directions for CSIRO research. "Food Science Australia," he said, "is closely integrated with government and with industry through its governing board which is made up of leading food industry chief executives."
Future programmes will be influenced by national research priorities, currently being defined with advice from CSIRO, the Chief Scientist and the Australian Research Council, and by the National Food Industry Strategy that emphasises the need for innovation.
Dr Eyles continued:"In June 2002 Food Science Australia will move into new laboratories. When CSIRO moved into our North Ryde laboratories 40 years ago in 1961, they had cost $650,000 (€381,300. The new laboratories, which are to be shared with the CSIRO Division of Molecular Science, are costing $50 million (€29.3m)."
New laboratories and a pilot plant are also being built at the Food Science Australia Werribee site by CSIRO, and an Innovative Food Centre will be set up there specifically for research on new technologies for food processing, supported by a $3 million (€1.8m) grant from the Victorian government.