Cutting-edge research in food engineering will be funded in a new program that brings together engineers and scientists from universities and crown research institutes to improve profits for New Zealand food producers.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment funding of $16.65 million over six years will enable research focused on selected processing steps – called unit operations – that will transform New Zealand’s primary food production into added-value exports.
Similar processing steps - like drying or freezing - are used by many sectors of the food industry, but the new program will use a co-innovation approach between teams of researchers and companies to conceive and develop new unit operations and extend the applications of existing technologies in order to enable manufacture of new products and provide improved efficiencies.
The program will be hosted by Massey University, with professor Richard Archer as national science leader, and partner organizations are AgResearch, Plant and Food Research, the Riddet Institute, the University of Auckland, and the University of Otago.
The program is closely linked to the New Zealand Food Innovation Network and will make use of the regional product development centers based in Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Christchurch, and Dunedin.
It also exploits and widens the networks of FoodHQ, which is the substantial Manawatu-centered cluster of agrifood business innovation organizations.
"The large-scale collaborative approach to research is the most efficient way for New Zealand to make rapid progress,” said Plant and Food chief executive Peter Landon-Lane.
AgResearch research director Warren McNabb says with four of the partners already linked in the FoodHQ collaboration, the involvement of Auckland and Otago universities creates high-level engagement between an extremely large cross-section of the New Zealand food industry, which he welcomes.
Massey vice-chancellor Steve Maharey says the program is a great example of aligning research capability with industry need and national necessity. “It is a strength of the university that we have researchers with rich industry experience able to bring such a program together,” said Maharey.
Professor Archer says the first commercialization will be by participating companies, but the program allows the technologies to become available soon after to other New Zealand companies to move other products up the value chain – an approach that should resonate with the business sector. "In funding the program, the ministry is targeting the huge value that downstream processing offers," he said. "Currently, much farm gate production leaves New Zealand with only minimal processing, particularly for Maori food assets, which are now concentrated in primary production.
"While this new research program enables new food processing capability, it sits alongside existing funded programs, including the High-Value Nutrition national science challenge, the industry-targeted Primary Growth Partnerships, and the BioResource Processing Alliance. The alliance is focused on returning value from various biological product streams that otherwise find only low-value outlets or go to waste."
One partner company is Dunedin-based Mainland Poultry. Managing director Michael Guthrie says the program is exactly what is needed to ensure the company's products are suitable for the new export market opportunities they have identified. "Until now the risk of developing new technology is too great for us to take on our own," said Guthrie.
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