PORTLAND - Oregon State University's newest agricultural experiment station is providing a unique service for entrepreneurs who want to take their food products from idea to grocery shelf.
More than a clearinghouse for advice on how to navigate the complexities of food processing and trade, the Food Innovation Center truly is an experiment station where the laboratory is a microcosm of the consumer market. "There's no place else like this in the country," said OSU food scientist John Henry Wells, newly appointed superintendent of OSU's 13th experiment station. The center is at 1207 N.W. Naito Parkway in North Portland.
Wells is doing double duty as both the superintendent and the program leader in packaging and logistics research at the 33,160-square foot building of glass, chrome and steel. More than 10 years in the planning, the $9.4 million Food Innovation Center is the result of a partnership between OSU and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
he center melds the ODA's expertise in marketing and export review with OSU's research programs in food packaging, consumer sensory science, agricultural marketing and trade economics. Together, the two organizations provide six programs in a concentrated area. The center's primary interaction is with food processors and producers and international trade delegates interested in Oregon products such as wheatberry caviar, smoked salmon, and chocolate-covered cherries and blueberries.
To serve both the manufacturers of such products and their prospective buyers, OSU oversees an ever-evolving slate of programs that helps food processors overcome barriers to technical development, production, distribution or marketing.
For example, product testing done at the FIC identifies problems that might derail a product's market potential well before the product is released for sale. Tasters and product testers sit behind a room of one-way mirrors to access the taste, smell, "mouth feel" and other intangibles that can make or break a product in the marketplace.
If a new milk drink aimed at young people tastes slimy in the mouth, it could be a marketing flop even if flavor and freshness are otherwise good.
Improving the safety and package durability of processed foods is another ongoing project. Food manufacturers from all over the country can avail themselves of a fully-equipped, simulated "mini-factory" to make products safer for consumers.
As an example, Wells pointed out a large Plexiglas box that resembles an infant's incubator but actually is part of a new, ultra-clean beef-grinding technology. The beef is ground in the "incubator" in an inert gas environment that reduces the chances of air-borne contamination and bacterial growth.
Package durability is another issue with manufacturers eager to reduce inventory losses due to shipping damage. An instrument at the center that looks like a cross between a high-tech guillotine and an old-fashioned photo enlarger can deliver a pinpoint measurement of just how much force is required to crush everything from a delicate pear to the sturdiest shipping box.
Another device that will help eliminate shipping accidents before they happen is a custom-built instrument soon to be installed in a space that resembles a warehouse bay. The machine can simulate and measure the shaking, rattling, altitude variations, humidity changes and other cargo transport variables.
Having such information is important to keeping a shipment of honey, for example, from becoming a shipment of glass and goo, Wells said.
Assisting processors with keeping their production costs under control is another research area for the FIC. Catherine Durham, an assistant OSU assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics, works to analyze economic factors that impact Northwest agricultural producers and processors. Durham is working on agricultural marketing and trade issues for clients who include grass seed growers, potato producers and wine makers.
Oregon wine producers are involved with Durham and her students in developing an economic snapshot of Oregon's wine industry. The data they are gathering on wine production costs gives winemakers a basis for cost comparisons.
Durham said the potato growers are interested in gathering data on the ideal level of solids in potatoes grown for production of French fries. Lower solids and more moisture in a potato means more oil is needed to cook it, resulting in more shrinkage and a poorer-tasting product. Knowing the ideal level of moisture gives potato producers valuable information to help them promote their product quality.
Additional projects are expected to begin this spring with the help of Anna Marin, an associate professor who is the latest Food Innovation Center staff member. Marin, who joined the center the first week of January, is a consumer and sensory analysis project leader. Her basic research involves developing new method of measuring the most subtle level of flavor detection.
Although perception of flavors varies widely from person to person, Marin said her research - conducted with the help of volunteer testers - offers a precise way of measuring the point at which flavors become detectable in foods and beverages.
"In the food industry, it's important to find the concentration levels where flavors can be perceived by consumers, Marin said.
For example, a fruit drink manufacturer might wish to add vitamins to boost the health benefits of a product but may not want the flavor of that vitamin to be detected. Knowing how much of the vitamin can be added to the juice to provide the therapeutic value without detection can help boost consumer acceptance of a novel, nutritious food product.