MIRINZ: Passionate people and curiousity drive meat research success

Robert Kemp
Robert Kemp.

The very “family nature” of the old Meat Industry Research Institute of NZ (MIRINZ) was highlighted for Robert Kemp in March at a function for about 40 ex-MIRINZ staff in Hamilton.

The former AgResearch research engineer attended the function along with AgResearch meat scientist Dr Carrick Devine and other colleagues, including former MIRINZ directors Lester Davey (1980s), Doug Wright (1987-1992) and Graeme Longdell, organised by the renowned former MIRINZ communications manager Richard Bentley. The founding director, Norman Law, had sadly already passed away.

“It was at the same time, our work place and playground, our chance to play on the fringe of world-leading R&D, to play with a mix of leading technology and technology we developed for our own use because nothing else existed in that field or was inordinately expensive,” Kemp recalls.

“It was also where we celebrated Christmas with our colleagues, complete with Santa in a tractor-drawn sleigh and presents for our kids. It was also where all the science and technical disciplines rubbed shoulders and used/adapted/made or purchased the gear required to do the job.”

It is evident that what hasn’t changed over the years are the passionate people, who enjoy each other’s company, and their curiousity and ingenuity which drives the success of the research emanating from AgResearch’s meat process-related research teams today.


Robert Kemp 1991
Robert Kemp working on the conversion of CFC refrigeration systems to non-CFC refrigerants in 1991.

Robert Kemp working on the conversion of CFC refrigeration systems to non-CFC refrigerants in 1991.

According to Kemp – whose own work on the critical temperature reduction and control within meat processing techniques evolved from his initial employment in 1984 within the MIRINZ Refrigeration & Energy team at Ruakura – there is a solid MIRINZ Link to the “Massey Effect” of influence on worldwide cold chain academia.

The “Massey Effect” stems from the pioneering work of two noted academics from Massey University – biotechnologist Dr Dick Earle and his wife Dr Mary Earle – who were each awarded a Doctor of Science by Massey University last year.

Before heading over to Massey, Earle had first joined MIRINZ in 1957 as senior engineer, “acting as a drawcard for the new MIRINZ”, notes Kemp. Earle was involved in the design of an early automatic carton freezer at Longburn with Bill Freeman in the early 60s. This freezer became the basis of many others built worldwide since then.

“When they moved to Massey from MIRINZ they were instrumental in setting up what is now (or was) the Food Technology Department.”

Their foresight and influence over the years resulted in a steady stream of scientists, now spread all over the world. Looking through the list, however, Kemp noted name after name of researchers linked directly, or indirectly to MIRINZ.

“Many of the food technology students ended up doing their PhD projects with input from MIRINZ and/or worked at MIRINZ as graduates right back to the start of this “refrigeration activity”

Those directly linked with MIRINZ, either as students, staff or both include: Richard and Mary Earle, Ray Mawson, Nevin Amos, Simon Lovatt, Inge Merts, Mike North, James Carson and Jian Feng Wang.

Kemp has also had contact with the Massey researchers such as David Tanner, Silvia Estrada-Flores, Grant MacDonald, Rodger Kallu, Andrew Cleland, Don Cleland, and John Bronlund through his MIRINZ work, including the Massey-run refrigeration ‘Cost Effective Refrigeration’ course that most, if not all, staff in the former MIRINZ Refrigeration & Energy team that he was part of would have completed.

“My role let me work with most of the Massey students that worked at MIRINZ, in many cases as the – or one of the – technician(s) on their PhD projects. Simon Lovatt, Mike North and James Carson in particular. Simon picked up on the FPM software that Dr Tuan Pham had developed and many of the projects of those later PhD students built further on that.”

Commenting at a celebration of Kemp’s 25 year milestone at MIRINZ in 2009, Dr Mike North noted his colleague’s key role at MIRINZ, with his involvement in such projects as energy benchmarking, food thermal property measurement, software development and sales, customer and plant visits, development and commercialisation of the immersion chiller and the non-invasive temperature detector, drily named by Kemp ‘NIFT_D’.

“I especially want to thank Robert for teaching and mentoring me when I was a young and impressionable PhD student. I certainly learnt a hell of a lot more from you than how to properly construct a thermcouple!” said North. He also noted Kemp’s love for R&D work and his passion for the meat industry, along with “what every engineer needs: a love for cars, a zest for live and a great appreciation for excellent food and beverages.”

The suite of software that came out of Kemp’s work with the PhD students included the Food Product Modeller (FPM), Refrigeration Loads Analyser (RLA) and Refrigeration Cycle Analyser (RCA), although the latter was not made commercially available.

“Initially these were used in-house for R&D, but I found when doing my plant visit programme that some plant engineers were keen to have access to them as well, so I worked on being able to market them, which we did.”

Demonstrating FPM ‘live’, Kemp recalls, was “always a risky thing to do on stage” at a refrigeration conference in Sydney.

“FPM is a valuable tool that allowed me to model time-temperature processes quickly and with good accuracy,” he says.

“I have often used it to demonstrate whether a carcase or carton chiller or freezer can in fact meet Process Hygiene Index (PHI) requirements. Once I have a model set up in FPM – time, plus a temperature profile, either from actual measured (logged) data (or design data) plus typical carcass or carton characteristics, FPM allows me to model that process and estimate not only product time/temperature profiles but also PHI.”

It also allows researchers to quickly run through a range of ‘what if…’ scenarios – ‘variations on a theme’, as Kemp has done for a number of clients, including MPI, he says.

Passion for the red meat industry acknowledged

Born in the early-1950s in Feilding, Kemp did not attend university, but the engineer has had a lifetime of curiousity about new technology.

An early dream to be an RNZAF pilot was dashed twice – first by being too young on application and second by being 50mm too tall for the new training aircraft. In 1970 he got his first job, as laboratory assistant to Carpentaria Exploration, in Barrytown on the West Coast, operating a pilot process plant extracting Ilmenite from West Coast beach sand. This led him to another role at DSIR’s chemical engineering team where he ended up working on methanol retrofit systems for petrol-powered cars. A move north to be closer to family for he and his wife Diane, then a Registered Nurse, led to a meeting with MIRINZ director Lester Davey in Hamilton and his appointment to the MIRINZ Refrigeration & Energy team in 1984.

Over the 32 years he was employed at MIRINZ/AgResearch, he was involved in a wide range of projects. These ranged from putting together the original Process Hygiene Index Manual in 2000, all the way through to his input on the impacts of ultimate pH on the freezing point of meat in a presentation at the 2014 AgResearch Meat Industry Workshop.

Outside of work, his curiousity about new technology led to his wife Diane and he to operate a photo restoration franchise Photopages (now defunct) in their home town of Hamilton that allowed him to use his interest, knowledge and skills to put together the “odd brochure and poster for work” as well as some basic video editing for projects. One of the biggest of those was for AgResearch, producing the Adding Value to Beef and Adding Value to Lamb posters, based on product development work that Dr Mustafa Farouk had been doing. These were used by industry around the world.

In 1995, Kemp also created the first ever website for MIRINZ.

“It was an effort to promote our wares,” he explains. “I created a mock-up interactive website using Powerpoint, then got approval and work with AgResearch management and the IT team to set up a website based on my mock-up www.mirinz.org.nz, which at the time of writing was still live. This then allowed us to not only promote our work but to promote the upcoming workshops and, later, to share/publish (approved) workshop presentations to the web.”

The achievement was acknowledged by then AgResearch chief executive Dr Andy West in 2006, speaking at the second annual AgResearch Meat Industry Workshop –‘Fresh ideas for fresh meat’ – in 2006: “It was [Robert Kemp’s] unstinting enthusiasm for communication and passion for this country’s red meat industry that led to this website,” he said.

Commenting in the speech on the need for fresh ideas, West said: “Other nations such as Brazil are catching up and will actually pass us in production efficiencies and yet others such as Denmark are way ahead of us. The quality of the relationship between scientists, technologists and industry is essential if we are to even stay in the frame globally.”

Fourteen years later, how much has changed and how much stays the same!

Since 2016, when he was made redundant, Kemp has continued to contribute his knowledge and skills to the meat research teams on a consultancy basis. He keeps up an active interest in the meat industry alongside he and Diane’s frequent visits to Australia, where their three adult have settled, to see them along with their three grand-children and two great-grandchildren.

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