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History of the Max Rubner-Instituts

From Research Focused at Fighting Starvation to Research Focused at Promoting Health

Historisches Foto - Lehrling bei der Säuregrad-Bestimmung - Institut für Bäckerei, 1935

Max Rubner, the scientist whose name was given to the Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food, lived from 1854 to 1932 and is considered as the founder of modern nutritional research. Given the devastating famines that were, beside wars, the main cause in the past centuries for the decimation of the population, it is almost surprising how late the systematic study of nutrition and food started. Among the research institutions of the current Max Rubner-Institut (MRI) that cover the major food groups, the milk research was the first one to start in Kiel in the 19th century: namely in 1877 with the Agricultural Experimental Station with two sections Agricultural Chemistry and Dairy Farming. All other fields of governmental food research started in the next century. The opening ceremony of the "Testing Station for Cereal Processing" was held in Berlin on 30 July 1907. The Testing Station dealt, inter alia, with "investigations for the imperial and state authorities as well as analyses of cereals, flours, brans, animal feed, oilseeds, oils and so forth for governmental administrations and private agencies." In particular, it was assigned the task "to observe the behaviour of the cereals during storage, grinding, processing and caking under different circumstances and influences". The fishery research started with the foundation of the "Fachtechnischen Beratungsstelle für alle auf dem Gebiet der Fischverarbeitung auftretenden Fragen und Probleme" (specialized technical advisory service for all issues and problems occurring in the field of fish processing) in Lübeck in 1920. The "Reichsinstitut für Lebensmittelfrischhaltung" (state institute for the preservation of fresh foods) was founded in Karlsruhe in 1936, the "Reichsanstalt für Fleischwirtschaft" (state institute for the meat industry) in Berlin on 1 April 1938. Despite the extreme shortage of dietary fats in the first World War it took until 1949 before the first negotiations started to establish an institute for fat research. Finally, the institute was  founded in 1950. It was initially located in a building of the regional finance office in Münster.

Not only in fat research, but also in other food groups and last not least in the human nutrition, there was urgent need for action at the time of the institute's founding. This became obvious in milk research due to the dissemination of large epidemics such as tuberculosis and brucellosis in the stables. Initially the pasteurization of milk was an important research topic; with all its facets the factor hygiene was for a long time in the focus of thematic objectives. With the establishment of a separate Institute for Hygiene in 1937 an even greater importance was assigned to the mentioned problematic area. At that time the extent of the potential hazards of milk manufactured under non-hygienic conditions for the human nutrition were far from being known. The required  detection methods did not yet exist, and essential interactions among bacteria in the milk and the thus caused diseases were not yet explored. Not only for the product milk but also for other products, the preservation and the fight against deterioration played an important role in research. The Second World War meant for all of the research institutions mentioned at least relocations,  partial or transitory end of the research work, or later a dismantling of the institutions. The new relaunch of meat research after the war started in the year 1945/46 when three institute directors founded the "Bacterial-Chemical Institute Kulmbach". The first institutional research activities of one of the predecessors of today's Max Rubner-Institut at the head office Karlsruhe were projects for the preservation of food by cold.

A characteristic of food research at that time was a close proximity to business and economics, in particular to medium-sized companies. It was intended by the policy that the governmental science institutions support the economy with research results. The small to medium-sized companies, partly heavily damaged by the war, could often not carry out own research at that point of time. Already in 1921 the institute founded for the fish research was renamed "Forschungsinstitut für die Fischindustrie GmbH" (research institute for the fish industry). In a publication of the institute the tasks and goals were clearly formulated: "The important results of science and technology are to be made accessible as quickly as possible and in handy form to the fish industry". And:  "No industry, and least the fish industry, is developed in such a way that the profitability of its work could not be substantially increased by reforms and innovations". Over the decades substantial changes occurred. The structure of the food industry has changed radically. Beside many artisanal business companies, e.g. in the milling, bakery and butchery sector, mainly multinational corporations actually operate in this field. Meanwhile, the food and nutrition industry has research departments with personnel and funding at least equivalent if not superior to any federal research institute.
Also on the basis of this development starting in the late 50s and early 60s, first very slowly, then ever more quickly the scope of responsibilities of governmental research institutes has changed. With the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 gradually a vast field of legal clarification opened up. The need for advice of the Federal Ministry responsible for nutrition grew substantially in food safety and quality matters. At the same time research at the federal research institutes became more international. In many alliances, networks and committees at the European and international level there was and is a high demand for experts of the governmental food research. These experts provide scientifically based advice to the Ministry.

As a substantial pent-up demand existed in nutrition research, extensive studies started in the food sector: Until the late 60s there existed no high quality baking wheat variety in Germany; usually wheat of feed grain quality was produced. The country was dependent on imports of baking wheat. A systematic harvest survey, which is carried out in Detmold to this day, contributed to identify the deficiencies. The progress achieved in the areas culture and processing is documented. E.g. the baking value of domestic and foreign grain was determined. The system of the baking quality classes for wheat has its origin in Detmold.
A similar performance was achieved in Kulmbach for meat: One of the tasks was the classification of carcasses, the development of quality classes and the transfer of relevant knowledge to the butchers. The first choice was the visual classification. It was tested, revised and prepared for implementation in the EEC. Later on, calibrating concepts for the classifying devices had to be developed.
Every now and then special events led to the inclusion of new research topics: Due to the testing of nuclear weapons and the potential risk of food contamination, the Federal Research Centre for Food Preservation was changed by a cabinet decision of November 1957 into the Central Research Institution of the Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Forestry for all matters relating to atomic research in the food sector. At the same time the Karlsruhe researchers discovered irradiation as a means of preserving food. A "Coordinating Office for monitoring environmental radioactivity" was created in 1962, which was of particular importance after the Chernobyl disaster. Today the Coordinating Office is located at the MRI Kiel and covers tasks of radioactivity surveillance in soil, vegetation, animal feed, and food of plant and animal origin. For a long period of time the environmental radioactivity of cereals was also observed in Detmold by the former Institute for Biochemistry.

In all food sectors a rapid development of the processing possibilities began already in the 60s and increased in the following decades. Often technological problems in quality or external sensory defects of food went hand in hand. Today all the departments of the Max Rubner-Institut that survived the numerous changes in name and structure, including several mergers and separations from parts of research departments are perfectly positioned: Process engineering facilities exist at all the locations for the manufacture of almost all end products, ranging from starch (grain), over sausages, to yogurt, cream, cheese etc. for research purposes. In 1972 a unit potato technology with semi-technical processing plants was established. Additionally, Detmold disposes of one pilot plant with a number of crushing aggregates of different size and capacity, a bakery pilot plant and a starch pilot plant. In Kulmbach, the MRI runs a meat pilot plant, and in Kiel a milk pilot plant. The construction of the new building in Karlsruhe was used to set up a pilot plant for general technological issues. These rather rare conditions at universities ensure that the scientists of the governmental food research are in high demand as experts, in particular as regards legal regulations in the processing industry. The traditionally close and trusting cooperation with the industry, on the one hand, the understanding of the economy, and, on the other hand the task to conduct research studies for the consumer make a commitment for consumers likely.

Simultaneously, market economy problems increasingly came into the focus of interest. In 1964, the production of fat and fat products in Germany amounted to approx. 10 billion Deutsche Mark,  just enough to cover the butter consumption in the own country. 80 percent of the other fats and oils were imported - no coincidence that in June 1964 the Institute for Lipid Research was detached from the alliance of the meanwhile established Federal Research Institute for Dairy Products in Kiel, and that a separate Federal Centre for Fat Research was founded. One task of the new research centre was to explore the quality of domestically produced oils and fats and to transfer the gained knowledge to the outside world.

The Kulmbach meat research experienced one of its highlights in the 60s with the enduring institutionalization as "Federal Institute for Meat Research" in 1960. But the end of the "economic miracle" - synonymous for many Germans with a most frequent and high meat consumption - and the general staff reduction in the civil service set an end to the steady growth of the institute.

The research topics changed: In addition to thematic evergreen topics such as hygiene tests the exposure to pollutants became more and more important in the 70's. Mercury, cadmium, lead, and numerous organic pollutants were identified in many foods. Often it was first necessary to find detection methods and to make them suited for practice.
In the 60s the research focused on the widespread use of persistent organic pesticides. In the 70s the institute’s publications dealt with problems caused by pesticide residues in milk, particularly in human breast milk. In this period, projects on the "carry over" - the transfer of toxic substances from animal feed into milk - were conducted. In a large study from 1981 to 1984, and in a further study in 2008 breast milk samples were analyzed. 
In another important foodstuff, namely cereals, the identification of natural and other contaminants become more and more important. The regular and systematic surveys on mycotoxins, heavy metals, or residues from pesticide use have resulted in an extensive and on-going database representing a very valuable basis for policy advice.

In the mid 60s and the 70s, the consumer played a more and more important role in the food and nutrition research - a development that increased during the 90’s, and culminated in the renaming of the Ministry of Agriculture in the "Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture”. To date the focus is still on the consumer, even if the ranking of the words has changed again. In 1962 it was explicitly formulated in the goal of the Federal Centre for Meat Research to further "protect consumers from food intoxication and fraud". In Karlsruhe, the growing importance of the consumer is reflected in the research activities: The Federal Institute for Quality Research in Geisenheim and the Federal Research Centre for Home Economics in Stuttgart-Hohenheim, as well as the already existing, local Federal Research Centre for Food Preservation merged into the Federal Research Centre for Nutrition in 1974. Apart from the food as such, the human nutrition as a whole complex was for the first time in the foreground. The field "Home Economics" - the actual Department of Nutritional Behaviour emerged from - has become an essential part of the research and is even more urgent given the situation that the economic miracle has left its marks on the population. It is increasingly evident that poor diets and above all overeating make people sick. Physiological issues, projects on the effect of nutrition on the population play an increasingly important role. The Federal Ministry commissioned large projects such as the implementation of the National Nutrition Survey to the Department of Nutritional Behaviour. Topics like food quality, scientific support of the launch of native rapeseed oil, avoidance of acrylamide during processing, research on preservation methods of milk, or methods to detect whether the meat purchased is actually from the indicated animal species are in the focus of the scientific studies. The diet of a growing world population is another topic of the German nutrition research. A sufficient supply with high quality protein is recognized to be a problem. In the years 1975 to 1986, the Hamburg-based researchers were involved in the Antarctic expeditions of the Federal Republic of Germany. On these journeys on the research vessels Walther Herwig I, II and III the Max Rubner-Institut performs important scientific expeditions. Inter alia, the researchers investigate on laboratory scale whether Krill crustaceans (a shrimp-like marine invertebrate animal) may serve as a potential protein provider.

Since 1 January 2008 all the federal food and nutrition research centres have merged into the Max Rubner-Institut, replacing the formerly separate federal research centres for nutrition and food. They were the Federal Dairy Research Centre in Kiel, the Federal Centre for Cereal, Potato and Lipid Research in Detmold and Münster, the Federal Centre for Meat Research in Kulmbach and the Federal Research Centre for Nutrition in Karlsruhe, as well as the section fish quality of the Institute for Fisheries Technology and Fish Quality of the Federal Research Centre for Fisheries in Hamburg. Based on the broad knowledge and experience, initially eight departments, at present six, and in the future four, have emerged: at its head office in Karlsruhe, the departments Physiology and Biochemistry of Nutrition, Nutritional Behaviour, Food Technology and Bioprocess Engineering and Safety, and Quality of Fruit and Vegetables. At the location Kiel the departments Microbiology and Biotechnology and Safety and Quality in Milk and Fish. At the location Kulmbach the research focus is on safety and quality of meat. Since May 2008, the Analysis Division, as a common facility of the Max Rubner-Institut, investigates specific analytical issues in the large field of food. Currently, the fish research is performed at the location in Hamburg and later in Kiel.

The research focus of all the departments of the Max Rubner-Institut is health and consumer protection in the food sector. Important research fields are the determination and nutritional assessment of health relevant food ingredients, the investigation of careful and resource-preserving methods of processing, the quality assurance of vegetable and animal food as well as the analysis of sociological parameters of nutrition and the improvement of nutrition information. The results will be communicated to the public and experts, and are the basis for the scientific advice of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV).
The scientists of the MRI are in many ways integrated into national and international research programs as well represented in national and international bodies and specialized agencies, such as the technical authority for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Codex Alimentarius Committee or the expert meetings of the European Commission in Brussels. At universities and at universities of applied sciences, they perceive a number of teaching positions. A matter of course is the cooperation with other federal institutions within the remit of the BMELV.