In about eight months, Dr Gale Brightwell will be standing with colleagues at the opening of the bright new Joint Food Science Facility (JFSF) at the Massey University campus in Palmerston North. It will be both a milestone for the future of New Zealand meat science and also a personal one for her and the AgResearch Meat Science team.
Construction is going to plan on the building that will be an historical leap forward for New Zealand’s meat and food science, reports Brightwell, AgResearch science team leader for food assurance, who has been involved with the development of the science centre. The AgResearch/Massey University new fully-shared facility will open in early 2020, about a month or so behind schedule.
“It’s looking really flash,” she says, adding that the external walls of the structure are already up and work on the interior three floors is well underway.
There have been few changes to the original plans for the 5,000 square metre building being constructed by main contractor McMillan and Lockwood. A 500 m2 pilot meat processing plant designed with meat industry input will be available on the ground floor, alongside one for dairy products. Together with the shared L2 and L3 laboratories on the two floors above, the Centre will bring together 140 people, including scientists and food technologists from AgResearch, Massey University and the Riddet Institute.
Work is also underway by the teams that will inhabit the building on how they will be working together side-by-side and what operating systems and equipment they will be using. It’s a step forward on the model currently at the Hopkirk Institute, where Brightwell is also acting director, and where Massey and AgResearch science teams work separately in their own labs, but in the same building, she explains.
“Collaboration between the two organisations has taken time to develop, but in the last couple of years, with the support of initiatives like the New Zealand Food Safety Science Research Centre (NZFSSRC) and the New Zealand China Food Protection Network (NZCFPN), some really good joint research projects are now underway as well as shared studentships which has helped cement the relationship,” says Brightwell.
“We are looking forward to seeing some really good collaborative research taking place in the new JFSF.”
Answering industry needs
From the meat industry perspective, research being undertaken by the AgResearch Food Assurance team, is aimed at addressing industry needs across the whole value-chain continuum from rumen to retail, explains Brightwell. It takes an holistic approach involving consideration of every stage of food production, from on-farm to consumption, including: microbiology, food safety, provenance, processing technology; social or religious requirements such as Halal as well as identifying ways of extending shelf-life for food products for export and domestic markets.
The most recent project on her desk is the development of a work programme around Food Integrity, focusing on building trusted food systems.
Today, consumers are seeking authenticity and regulators demand more stringent compliance, she explains.
“People demand better information on how their food was made. They are looking for foods from companies who can demonstrate how they grow or raise their food – from environmental practices to food safety, quality and animal welfare. Consumers and government are looking for sustainable practices around power usage, water quality and reducing food wastage.”
In particular, there is an urgent need for end-to-end visibility and digitisation of information within New Zealand’s food systems.
“This includes farming and processing practices and animal welfare all the way through to packaging, transport and marketing. Digital technologies such as blockchain, big data analytics and AI are actively being applied to the food industry to achieve greater transparency,” she says.
“We should be ready with verifiable data-sets and set up our own block chain type approaches. It’s really around trusted, verifiable, transparent production and processing systems and how you do that.”
Noting the story about New Zealand’s food provenance – grass-fed farming practices and natural resources being integral parts of this country’s food systems – is important to consumers too, she believes the food sector should be taking a ‘One Health’ approach to zoonotic pathogens (including antimicrobial resistance) in animal production systems (including animal well-being).
“By doing so, we can start to address the wider risk of dissemination to the environment affecting water quality and transmission to livestock and humans via the environment and/or contaminated foods.”
Rigorous quality assurance processes are also expected by the consumers and regulators. This includes control of pathogenic bacteria and spoilage bacteria, probiotic supplementation, fermentation organisms as well as microbial toxins.
“In short, the microbiome and metabolome of food,” says Brightwell.
Precision food safety emerging
Rapid emergence and adoption of data-intensive tools in food safety is undergoing a paradigm shift, recently described as ‘precision food safety’. Whole genome sequencing (WGS), provides rapid identification and characterisation of micro-organisms, with a level of precision not previously possible. The US, China, EU (market access) and the CDC (public health) rely almost exclusively on WGS as their main regulatory and surveillance tool.
“This is driving fundamental research to characterise and quantify the food microbiome at a baseline, and after processing, to verify the effectiveness of good farm or manufacturing practices and to monitor control measures highlighted in food system Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plans (HACCP),” she says.
To protect access to New Zealand’s key export markets, Brightwell says the New Zealand food sector needs to develop critical capability in advanced genomic and phenotypic technologies (Micro-Food Omics) such as WGS, metagenomic methods and phenotypic arrays to investigate microbial ecology, evolvability, and phylogenetic diversity.
Sustainability is another driver that consumers are willing to pay more for. Similarly, policy makers are standing up to corporate greed and protecting our environment.
“The vast number of consumer surveys and social media forums highlighting concerns about the impacts of food systems on the environment, human and animal health, plus the fact that more than a third of all food produced goes to waste, show this,” she says. “Technologies that can extend shelf-life will be significant in helping combat food wastage, she says.
In addition, all around the world, agriculture and food production are under regulatory review for sustainability, environmental impact and resource usage.
“Food processing plants use large quantities of water and energy due to; the perishable nature of the product, the need for high levels of sanitation and a requirement to keep product chilled or frozen,” notes Brightwell.
“Technologies based on spectra, energy-waves or oxidative gases that have the potential to transform food processing not only through reduced water and energy usage but also by reducing chemical inputs, residues and waste treatment, will be increasingly used in the arsenal food producers have at their disposal,” she predicts.
Alternative proteins? No problem for New Zealand
Commenting on the new alternative and plant-based proteins, Brightwell says while there are still markets for those and plenty of investment, she doesn’t see much of a problem for the New Zealand red meat sector and doesn’t see cellular meat being produced in New Zealand.
For Brightwell, the future lies in high-value high-quality niche foods derived from New Zealand’s beef, lamb and venison.
“There will always be people who can afford to buy a nice steak,” she says. “The whole thing behind synthetic proteins really started as an altruistic attempt around feeding the hungry and producing a lot of protein quickly.
“Once the novelty’s worn off, what happens then? I would like to think it will all be redirected to where it was originally intended, feeding the hungry. By 2050, the world is projected to have near to 10 billion people to feed.”