SMART COMPANY : The grass is greener

Half of what goes on in the sprawling 10,000 square metre Fonterra Research Centre you won’t have heard about. And some of it you never will.
Secret patents mean Fonterra lowers cone of silence on whole wing of its research facilities to prevent competitors from discovering patents and launching rival technologies.
That makes Jeremy Hill’s job hard. The research centre’s chief technology officer says he’d love to show people the innovations Fonterra is researching in its sealed laboratory, trialling in its pilot plant or testing in its sensory consumer division. But he can’t.
“We have some blockbusters,” is as much as he can reveal about good part of the work they do. But there are some innovations that have been released and are public knowledge. In fact, one of them is so revered it was immortalised on an NZ Post stamp – spreadable butter, breakfast-time hit around the world.
And there are others you might see in media reports from time to time – medical advances and new food products – which add up to major body of research from centre that develops up to 300 prototypes year.
Fonterra has quietly become world leader in dairy research and development, often working in partnership with international joint ventures, like one with Dutch company FrieslandCampina. This pharmaceutical partnership provides much of the world’s lactose utilised to produce excipients used as carriers for the active ingredients in medication. In one example, lactose is being processed into dry carrier enabling asthma medication to be taken further into the lungs.
These commercial relationships, for items as varied as confectionery and products delivering enhanced levels of proteins, drag in millions of export dollars.
There are 350 scientists working on research at the four hectare site near Massey University, 100 with PhDs. Among them are food technologists, scientists and engineers. “It’s community of world-leading scientific expertise in the commercial area, focused on creating millions of dollars worth of value for the New Zealand economy,” says Hill.
Investment in this centre for innovation is substantial, using machines you’d recognise more from medicine than research: x-ray, MRI and micro CT scan machines, mass spectrometer and spectacular confocal microscope that can recreate in 3D the molecular structure of material.
Applied to dairy advances, these expensive machines analyse the story inside milk powders or explain the effects of different compounds on calcium in bone marrow.
Fonterra’s expertise, says Hill, lies in the marrying of the theories devised in the lab with practical production done in two pilot plants – one itself the size of smallish dairy factory. “This is what differentiates us,” says Hill. “It’s not just lab, we test and produce new processes. We call it from ‘PowerPoint to prototype’. We can produce finished dairy products, and we can then test the look, the feel and the sensory characteristics.”
Anne Abraham, head of consumer and sensory science, employs 60 part-time permanent staff members whose sole job is to taste and report on the qualities of the food products in development.
The company is also investing heavily in people, recruiting leading scientists from as far away as Zimbabwe and Iceland as it gathers expertise – and running its own year-long masterate in dairy science through Massey University, “fast track for talent” that brings students into the business as they study.

A taste of the future

Among the Fonterra innovations are:
• An award-winning low-salt savoury cheese.
• ReCharge, nutritional ice cream for chemotherapy patients unable to eat normal diet, produced in joint venture with the Auckland University Medical School.
• A crystal clear high protein sports drink developed out of whey protein.
• Whey chips with enhanced protein.
• Culinary cream for the food trade, which doesn’t separate as it heats.
• A dairy product that could save lives by helping prevent rotovirus-related diarrhoea.
• Probiotic yoghurt that alleviates eczema.
• Confectionery bars with reduced fat and sugar content that retain taste.
• A technology that shortens the time spent to make mozzarella cheese from months to hours. The cheese is used in commercial pizzas by Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Hell Pizza.
• Satellite milk concentration plants. Fully automated, they have cut tanker deliveries in some areas by half.

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