Value-Added Food Processing Incubator...
Sage Meets the Sausage
Youve got this really terrific idea. Its for a new
food product something that could be even bigger than Kentucky
Fried Chicken. (And get this, youre the next Colonel Sanders.)
But ... how do you put wings on an idea to let it fly?
food, if its a new concept, call Benjy Mikel.
Mikel, an animal scientist at the University of Kentucky Value-Added
Food Processing Incubator, has developed a place where food entrepreneurs
can get solid advice on bringing their new ideas to the marketplace.
in 1997 as a couple of Extension workshops for meat processors
has grown since thenand its growing faster nowinto
a full-fledged, one-stop shop for budding food entrepreneurs.
There they can try out their ideas to see if they really have
the potential for moneymaking before they put their life savings
at the incubator work with people and their ideas. First, they
eyeball the idea to see if it has merit for further scrutiny.
If its worthy of proceeding, then they consider the cost
of manufacturing the product, the marketing costs associated with
bringing it to the marketplace, the per-item basis when the production
lines are up and running, and whether the market niche is sufficient
to support the products manufacture.
our clients know at every step of the way what we believe needs
to be done to get the product to the consumer. We act as consultants;
we advise, but the clients make the decisions, said Mikel.
Mikel is a muscle foods specialist in the food science group within
the Department of Animal Sciences whose own brainchild is the
food science incubator program.
Ultimate Test: Taste
The team at the incubator even puts new food products through
the litmus test for foods: taste testing.
If it doesnt meet favorably with the consumer palate,
you might as well go home. Consumers are more sophisticated than
ever in their desire for foods. Not only do they want convenience,
they want taste, Mikel said.
Actually, new products go through a two-stage testing procedure
for palatability: first with scientists whose training lends them
some sense of what consumers want, then with real-life consumers.
first stage, our scientists evaluate the product to see if a little
tweaking here and there with spices or other ingredients would
enhance its chances to make it in the marketplace, Mikel
After tweakingand usually several slightly different formulations
come out of that processthe new food formulations are ready
for the real test: consumers.
our taste panels provide detailed information about each of the
formulations of the product, Mikel said.
If the product comes out of taste tasting with high marks, the
team then considers packaging and labeling.
Packaging includes how much product to put in each unit,
which is usually determined by whether the product will be sold
for the wholesale or retail trade, and how to package it for shelf
life and storage ease, Mikel said.
Labeling, he said, is pretty much driven by the federal laws pertaining
to food commerce.
We make sure that the package label meets federal guidelines,
which can be complicated, he said.
Taste testing is an important part of
what the Value-Added Food Processing Incubator does. Scientists
on the incubator team do the first taste testing of the products.
Then, after tweaking, real-life consumers try them out.
Philosophy at Work
In its brief life, the incubator has worked with all types of
clients, from Fortune 500 companies to mom-and-pop operations
with hopes of becoming Fortune 500 companies (or at least enticing
the Fortune 500 companies to do business with them).
of our clients has different needs. Small businesses need expertise
at all levels, and we give it to them. They use the whole panoply
of our servicesincluding help from our agricultural economists,
packaging experts, processing people, you name it. The big firms
use our services to help them with product formulation, which
often involves making a quality product with least-cost ingredients,
that the incubator project embodies the land-grant university
philosophy to a T.
We provide the research and development to the little guys
so they can compete with the big guys. And we are affordable,
So far, the
services of the incubator remain free to all who ask for help,
although Mikel said that the incubator has benefitted from grateful
clients. We started this with a $150,000 pot of seed money
that Dr. Scott Smith provided (he was then associate dean for
research; hes now dean of the College). From there, clients
have been very generous and we hope that remains the case so we
can grow and become bigger and better. Clients whove used
our services have donated a great deal of expensive equipment
to help us improve our services, he said.
program recently became one of the first projects in the state
to be awarded a $75,000 grant through the Kentucky Innovation
Act of 2000, which is designed to help Kentucky businesses create
marketable products from cutting-edge research. The grant will
be used to assist local processors and entrepreneurs in developing
innovative food products.
Mikel is enthusiastic about the entire program, which not only
helps Kentucky farmers and consumers, but helps students in the
food sciences program have real-life experience in food technology
as undergraduates. And that can help them when they seek employment
experiences the students have prepare them very well to take on
responsibilities in industry upon graduation. They know firsthand
how things operate, Mikel said.
of the program for Kentucky food processors and farmers are impressive.
Several new products already in the marketplace or close to being
in the marketplace, include:
TomatoesMost Southerners relish fried green tomatoes,
but enjoying them is still a late summer treat for home gardeners.
This project links a tomato producer, who produces both field
and hothouse tomatoes, with a major food restaurant chain that
features Southern cuisine.
Food Processing Incubator has worked with the grower to bread
and freeze the green tomatoes for wholesaling to restaurant chains
that feature comfort food cuisine. Three coating formulationstraditional,
hot and spicy, and cornmealhave been tested at a restaurant.
The outcome is that hot and spicy appeals to younger diners, while
the other two coatings appeal to middle age and older diners.
If the small entrepreneur can secure capital, entrance into the
market is expected within the next year.
A small Kentucky pork producer, Foothills Country Meats in Monticello,
wanted to increase the value of pork hams. Working with the incubator
program, the experts suggested ham jerky, a dried meat product
that has long shelf life and a market niche.
colleges Food Science program continues to work with businesses
like SMG Inc., which recently purchased Fischer Packing Company
in Louisville. At left is Troy Wilkerson, (UK class of 85,
animal sciences), now SMGs vice president for food safety,
who worked with faculty members Benjy Mikel and Melissa Newman
before they traveled to Field Packing (also an SMG company) in
Owensboro to review its food safety plan. Through its incubator
project, the Food Science program also helped Fischer improve
its natural casing bratwurst.
- Food manufacturing
is one of the states largest manufacturing sub-sectors.
- Food manufacturing
accounts for more than 37,000 jobs in Kentucky, with a payroll
in excess of $11 billion annually.
of Kentuckys geographic location (within a days
drive of a substantial portion of the nations consumers)
the states industry has the potential to grow rapidly.
- The College
of Agricultures Food Science program, a four-year B.S.
degree program, educates students for positions in the value-added
food manufacturing industry. n Starting salaries for last years
crop of graduates were in the $39,000 range, with hiring demand
exceeding the supply.
Care of a Sticky Problem
a dry blending and packaging plant in Bloomfield, Kentucky, needed
help with a sticky situation. Its breading mixture, used by a
meat packer to coat pork fritters sold at fast food restaurants,
wasnt sticking to some of the meat fritters (which are made
from whole pork loins). It stuck fast on some, but on others the
breading fell off before cooking.
The incubator faculty tackled the problem by first finding out
why the breading only stuck to some pork loin fritters. They found
that the pH of the meats the meat processor used was quite variable,
which accounted for why the breading did the job well for some,
but not others.
We worked with the pork fritter processing company, so they
started using better quality pork loins, which had a more consistent
pH. In addition, we took the advice from the value-added incubator
faculty and modified our coating recipe to include a soybean product
that would increase the breadings adhesiveness, said
Dan Sutherland, owner and chief executive officer of the 25-employeefirm.
continue to depend on UKs incubator to help us with cutting-edge
science research in the future. UKs expertise is just what
small food processing firms like ours need to grow, Sutherland
the Snap Back into Bratwurst
aficionados who remember the old-style brats love the newest addition
to the Fischer Meats line of delicatessen products: natural casing
middle of the 20th century, brats were made with natural casing
(gut) surrounding the ground porkspiced with ingredients
such as ginger, nutmeg, and corianderthat constituted the
middle of the sausage.
With modern technologyand an industry dominated by large
corporations that could out-compete smaller firms through speed
and efficiencythe natural gut casing became largely a historical
culinary curiosity replaced by synthetic casing.
But many fans
of brats believed that the synthetic casing caused the brats to
lose their snap when they bit into the sausages.
When the Fischer
Meats marketing department saw a market niche for a natural casing
bratwurst, it needed help.
Garry Bork, director of technical services for Fischer Packing
in Louisville, asked Benjy Mikel if the Value-Added Food Processing
Incubator could help redevelop the natural casing
bratwurst to bring back the snap and flavor.
At the incubator, we ground and spiced the pork and stuffed
the natural casings with the mixture. Benjy brought meat sciences
students to help and observe. After we had the uncooked brats
stuffed, we used the smokehouse in the facility to
cook the brats, Bork said.
natural casings add a distinctive flavor to the brats, the spice
mixture was blended in differentcombinations.
Brats from the different combinations of spices were taste tested
to find the right combinations for consumers, he said.
result of the incubators expertise, we now have a natural
casing bratwurst product the meets consumer expectations. We most
likely will use the expertise of the facility when our sales department
suggests we add another product to our delicatessen line,
Fischers natural casing product can be purchased at major
grocery stores throughout Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and West