Since 1983, the Food Processing Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has provided support to food companies across the state of Nebraska. With a stated mission of advancing the food industry by applying science, investing in people, and building businesses, the FPC has made Nebraska a hub for food companies.
This includes pet food companies. Those that have found a home in Nebraska have long been able to benefit from the array of services offered by the FPC, and some additions to the Center and the UNL Food Science and Technology Department in recent years have added to the benefits in both services and workforce in this industry.
Dr. Mary-Grace Danao, Research Associate Professor in the UNL Food Science and Technology department, has seen several services that can be helpful specifically in the product development stage.
- Pilot plant services
- Microbial testing and shelf-life testing
- Process optimization and validation
The FPC has pilot-scale equipment in extrusion, freeze drying, oven baking, high pressure processing (HPP), batch and blending that can be used during product and process scale-up testing. The Center also can test for quality of incoming ingredients and finished products and offers engineering consultation services and can help with process optimization and validation.
The FPC has continued to add services to meet changing industry standards, as well. In order to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011, all food manufacturers, including pet food manufacturers, need to validate the lethality step in their process. Without the validation study or evidence from the scientific literature that supports their lethality step, food manufacturers are unable to make their product and sell it in the marketplace. According to Dr. Danao, “Since our HPP Services Lab started in 2018, we have helped many food manufacturers complete their validation studies and launch hundreds of products to market.”
Three faculty members of the Food Processing Center are also members of the Department of Food Science and Technology. They have active research programs in food microbiology, food safety, and value-added food processing.
In recent years, Purina Animal Nutrition in Fremont, NE and Nature’s Valley Lincoln, NE facility have found significant improvements and optimizations through projects with the FPC and NE Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).
As part of its continuous improvement initiatives aimed at achieving greater sustainability and lowing operating costs, Purina Animal Nutrition was looking for extra assistance to help expedite the task of reducing its wastewater demand on the city. The NE MEP and UNL College of engineering partnered for an internship program that allowed an engineering student to assess the facilities wastewater generation int eh summer of 2017. Through improvements based on the recommendations from that work, the Purina Animal Nutrition plant saw more that $60,000 in annual savings, according to the NE MEP website.
Nature’s Variety engaged engineers in the Food Processing Center (FPC) at the University of Nebraska through the Nebraska MEP, part of the MEP National Network™, to optimize product shape and size and tempering room conditions, with the goal of reducing tempering times from 72 hours to under 24 hours. As with all frozen food items long tempering times lead to lower product quality as well as increasing the risk for microbial growth, comprising the safety and shelf-life of the food. The FPC conducted tests to determine thermal properties of Nature Variety’s meat product blends and used heat transfer analysis and Multiphysics simulation software to optimize product size and shape, while varying tempering room conditions. The results of this project led to an estimated $1.8 million in savings, as well as $200,000 invested in new equipment.
While access to resources like the FPC can be hugely valuable, access to a talented workforce is just as important, sometimes more-so, for pet food companies considering Nebraska. The UNL Food Science and Technology saw an opportunity to help fill this need even more directly than they already were by adding a new minor.
“We’ve always had students who majored in Food Science or in Animal Science get good jobs in the pet food industry,” Danao said. “The new Food Technology for Companion Animals minor is meant to give any student in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR) a solid background on companion animal nutrition and food processing, so they are even more competitive in finding jobs in the pet food industry.”
Dr. Danao, who also serves as the lead contact for the Food Technology for Companion Animals minor, sees these offerings from UNL as an extension of the many things that make the state a welcoming environment for pet food companies.
“I think Nebraska is a great state for pet food manufacturers to work in because the state has lots of capabilities to provide raw ingredients or byproducts from meat processing, as well as co-manufacturing, be it in the area of high-pressure processing, freeze drying, oven baking, etc.”