The research into processing methods for such foods could help manufacturers adjust their plant procedures to meet the demand for such products. Low input production aims to meets the increasing demand for more natural, healthier foods by using fewer chemicals and other agricultural substances. Consumer concerns over the effects mass food production is having on the environment have also led the trend. The Stuttgart meeting, from 20 to 23 March, will review the progress of an EU-funded project to improve the sustainability of organic and low input food production systems. One part of the research project aims to develop a framework for the design of "minimum" and "low input" processing methods, which guarantee food quality and safety. Organic processing standards prohibit the use of chemical many preservatives and other food additives, which are widely used in the processing of conventional foods. The researchers noted that part of the problem in meeting these standards is the underlying rationales and criteria used to allow some but not other processing methods and additives, especially when new processing technologies or additives have to be assessed for conformity with organic processing standards. "There is also evidence that consumers of 'low input' and organic foods have specific expectations with respect to quality characteristics of processed food," the researchers stated. "These may relate to the degree of processing, concern about specific additives, nutritional composition, integrity or whole food concepts, the degree of convenience, the level of energy use and transportation distances, but also food safety." Conflicts also arise due to the desire to 'minimally process' in order to avoid negative effects on the nutritional and sensory quality, and considerations of shelf life and food safety. For example, when chlorine is not used as a disinfection agent, the shelf life of ready-to-eat salad products is relatively short and enteric pathogen contamination problems can occur. The researchers involved in this part of the project aim to develop a framework or code of practice that can be used to determine whether novel processing strategies are compatible with organic principles. They will also identify whether consumer demands and expectations may or may not match organic processing standards and principles. They will aim to look at alternative processing strategies that are compatible with legislation and standards so as to minimise food safety risks. They will also assess processing technologies that may improve the nutritional composition of dairy products. Meanwhile researchers working on another part of the larger project aim to develop strategies to improve quality and safety, and reduce costs along the food supply chain for such products. The studies focus on the structures, conduct and performance of supply chains for organic food, which vary significantly between European countries and regions. The major differences include the length of the supply chain, its infrastructure, market relevance and the degree of co-operation and integration among producers, processors, retailers and certification bodies. While the organic supply chains are mainly based upon already existing conventional infrastructures in some countries such as the UK and Austria, other members such as Germany and the Netherlands have built up significant new and independent supply chain infrastructures for organic food. "These factors may affect supply chain associated costs and product quality and safety," the researchers stated. The project aims to develop a food safety protocol, manuals and training schemes for organic food production and processing systems based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. Other studies in the wider EU project focus on consumer perceptions, expectations and attitudes about the quality, safety and sustainability of low input food supply chains. A third part of the project aims to quantify the effect of organic and 'low input' production methods on food quality and safety and human health. These studies are a examining ways to improve crop, soil and livestock management practices. Improving quality assurance and supply chain organisation are the subjects of other studies being conducted by scientists across the EU. "One of the main reasons for the increasing demand for 'low input' foods and the price premiums achieved by organic foods, has been that many consumers perceive these foods as 'healthier', 'more nutritious', 'tastier' and 'safer' than foods from intensive conventional production systems," a project document states. "However, until now scientific investigations have not been of sufficient scale and design to provide a definitive understanding of the extent to which differences between agricultural production systems affect these qualities." For more information, visit www.qlif-congress.org.