Leduc food processing centre ‘a true partner’ in helping entrepreneurs get products to market
By Therese Kehler
It’s a place where food industry entrepreneurs can try out big ideas on a small scale, with top-notch advice. It’s also a place that can nurture fledgling food and beverage businesses, offering space, production equipment and expertise at reasonable prices.
The Food Processing Development Centre (FPDC) and the Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator (APBI) are housed under the same roof in a Leduc industrial area. The names may not be inspirational but what happens inside sure is.
With specialized equipment and teams of scientists, engineers and technicians, these Alberta government-owned facilities are key players in the province’s food and beverage industry, helping small- and medium-sized entrepreneurs with everything from R&D to navigating the logistics of interprovincial exports.
“We charge for services — about $500 a day — and then they pay for clean-up and they pay for their own labour,” executive director Ken Gossen says during a tour of the facilities located about a half-hour south of Edmonton.
“We’re not a co-packer. We let companies run their businesses out of here,” Gossen continues. For more than 30 companies, he says, “this is their manufacturing address.”
But even for businesses with their own addresses, the Leduc centre has incredible value helping entrepreneurs reach their goals, says James Szarko, president and CEO of Botaneco, a Calgary-based company that creates value-added natural ingredients from oilseeds.
“An acceleration of any company’s business plan requires things that they don’t have,” Szarko says, reeling off examples like physical needs, human resources and mentorship. “All of us, as entrepreneurs and organizations, are trying to get to the endpoint of achieving our business goals. And to do that takes working together. It takes a lot more than just ourselves.”
Big value of value-added
Within the Alberta economy, value-added food and beverage products are big business. In 2018, sales from Alberta’s processed food and beverage industry were $14.9 billion, an amount surpassed only by refined petroleum products.
Growing that industry is a priority and the Leduc centre plays a big part.
Since its establishment in 1984, the FPDC has quadrupled to its current size of 140,000-square-feet. Its scope has also grown — initially focused on Alberta’s meat industry, the facility can work with any food or beverage product, including the increasingly important plant-protein sector.
Gossen says the centre works with about 120 companies and develops about 150 products a year. Of those, “about 25 to 30 stay in the market.”
The adjacent incubator, established in 2007, is a CFIA-approved multi-tenant facility with seven suites that are leased to new and expanding food and beverage companies. Those that are approved for the program have up to five years to refine production techniques, develop marketing strategies and grow a customer base.
The incubator is an intermediate step for entrepreneurs that simply can’t bankroll their own commercial operations, Gossen says. After a few years in business, those companies can then approach banks for financing with “one million, two, three, four, $5 million in sales,” he says. “Now that’s something (a bank) can get behind.”
Power of tools
Slicing, dicing, stuffing, pressing, grinding, breading, frying, freezing, bottling, packaging — the list goes on. Whatever is required to produce a new processed food or ingredient, chances are the FPDC has a machine to get it done.
During the tour, Gossen pauses at a high-pressure processor, which uses water pressure to kill bacteria — listeria, campylobacter, e-coli or salmonella — that may be present in already-packaged meat products.
In 2008, a contaminated slicer at Maple Leaf Foods spread listeria into deli and luncheon meats. The bacteria continued to grow inside the packages, leading to an outbreak of listeriosis that killed 23 Canadians and sickened dozens more.
The HPP machine can eliminate that risk by applying 87,000 psi to plastic packages of meat, rupturing bacteria cells without damaging the product. “You can put a tomato in there and apply that pressure and it comes out as a round tomato still because the pressure is applied equally on all the surfaces,” Gossen says. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Also interesting is how the centre’s equipment is purchased.
In the case of the high-pressure processor, the $1.5-million machine was bought in a cost-sharing arrangement between government and the crop and livestock industries.
“This is what’s unique about this facility,” Gossen says, about the shared investment in equipment. “We can bring in some of this technology that maybe industry wouldn’t invest in, and then we can prove it to them that it would be worthwhile.”
Alberta’s first fractionation suite
The crop industry is definitely interested in seeing the value of plant-protein fractionation. It, along with Western Economic Diversification, paid for the nearly complete $4-million fractionation suite for plant proteins, the first such facility in Alberta.
Gossen says the suite is missing one piece of equipment — a commercial-sized spray dryer — but once that is acquired, the suite will be ready for action.
Fractionation is the technology that separates oilseeds, pulses and cereals into protein, fibre and starch. These so-called fractions can then be used as ingredients in other goods, such as food and beverages, animal feed or beauty products.
“The crop industry identified this opportunity several years ago,” says Gossen, referring specifically to the now-defunct Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, whose logos are plastered onto the shiny stainless tanks in the suite.
Many raw foods could be fractionated using this equipment — milk, fruits — but Gossen says the intent is to reserve the suite for the plant-protein industry.
The new fractionation suite is located in the incubator side of the facility, but fractionation is already taking place on a much smaller scale in the food processing and development centre. During the tour, we’ve already seen the dining room-table sized decanter centrifuge and some of the plant-protein powder it helped create.
To get a sense of scale of the different sides of the facility, you only need to look up — way up — at the centrifuge’s big brother, towering over the tanks and vats in the fractionation suite.
‘A real, true partner’
It was equipment — specifically, access to a spray dryer — that brought Botaneco to the Leduc centre. But it was the overall experience that keeps the company coming back, says Szarko.
Botaneco has developed an innovative process to uniquely isolate authentic, multifunctional ingredients from oilseeds without using heat or chemicals. The resulting products — protein concentrates, isolates and oil droplets called Oleosomes — are used as ingredients in food, feed and personal-care products.
In 2015, Botaneco accessed the facilities in Leduc to help perfect that process in a high-quality, cost-effective manner.
In fact, the centre was instrumental in the development of Karmyn, a safflower protein that was used in one of Botaneco’s early commercial products, Szarko says.
“The quality of their operations, it’s just first class,” he says. “It’s as clean as I’ve ever seen before. The equipment they’ve got functions and works incredibly well.”
Best of all, though, is the commitment of its staff from Gossen on down, he says. “I would call it a real strong desire to be a partner with you … a real, true partner that’s working toward your outcomes.”
Among the many services offered are sensory evaluations, where new food products are put before a panel made up of in-house experts or regular consumers. Gossen says they’ll pull in about 100 participants — out of a database of more than 3,000 — to weigh in on a product’s taste, smell, texture, potential cost and more.
“You get a really good estimation of how that product will be responded to in the marketplace,” he says.
The panels are of interest to Botaneco as it explores the possibilities of using its Oleosomes, or oil droplets, in food products like baked goods or mayonnaise, Szarko says. “I see them as being a continuous partner of ours, ongoing indefinitely.”
Szarko urges emerging food and beverage companies to check out the two Leduc facilities and see what they have to offer.
“There may not be a level of appreciation for what the capabilities are of these centres,” he says.
“But they’ve helped a lot of companies commercialize their finished products. And that’s not easy.”
Therese Kehler is a freelance writer and editor based in Edmonton
Posted Jan. 28, 2020