Out-of-date buildings and equipment could be holding back new developments in food processing, according to faculty at North Dakota State University.
A proposal for a new $60 million foods research facility on the NDSU campus would give students and researchers a leg up, and the idea is garnering industry support.
The Animal Sciences Department at the college is laying plans for what it’s calling the Agricultural Products Development Center. The state-of-the-art facility would be the new home for a number of food-related sciences, including the university’s Meat Lab, which has gained the backing of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.
The Meat Lab is housed in Shepperd Arena, built in 1952. It offers research, teaching and outreach activities, said Greg Lardy, NDSU Associate Vice President of Agricultural Affairs. The lab researchers cover everything from pre-harvest to food safety to slaughter and processing. University students are taught about meat quality and muscle biology in the lab and the facility offers outside training for people in the meat industry.
“One of the things about the current facility is it was designed, in part, to teach on-farm slaughter and processing techniques,” Lardy said of students who would return to the family farm and process meat.
The proposal would create a modern research and teaching facility, giving researchers capabilities the current facility doesn’t allow and students an advantage in the job market to work at major processing companies, such as Hormel.
“We’re really not set up to do that effectively,” Lardy said. “It would allow us to do so much more in this area .... North Dakota is so good about raising these foods, but we need to be better about helping students see opportunities for further value-added activities.”
In addition to Shepperd Arena being more than 65 years old, it also houses a livestock arena, causing some food safety complications.
Julie Ellingson, the executive vice president for the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said the group voted in policy measures re-affirming its support for agricultural research, including this proposal. She said attempts last session to update the Meat Lab were cut due to budget constraints but there was broad acceptance for it among lawmakers.
“Last time, there were just not enough resources to reach down and pull that one in,” she said.
NDSA is hopeful, by combining it with other areas of food science — cereal science, food science, food safety — in need of facility updates at the university, this proposal might get university system budgetary inclusion.
Lardy said the center is second on the priority list for capital improvements at NDSU, behind the chemistry department’s Dunbar Laboratory. The Dunbar Hall project cost estimate is $51.35 million.
The State Board of Higher Education authorized Animal Science to begin private fundraising of up to $6 million for the center.
“We really think the benefits are multifaceted,” said Lardy, adding that students who are trained there could return to ranches to implement better selection in their breeding programs. It also could spur entrepreneurs to develop new products. For example, beef muscle profile research led to the discovery of a new cut of meat, the flat iron steak. Previously, that meat was being ground up or included in a roast. The new cut added $10 to $15 of value to each carcass.
“We think this facility would also have opportunity for those with ideas for new food products to do consumer sensory testing,” Lardy said. “If they want to test a new recipe, this facility would have the capability of doing so.”
Bringing multiple disciplines under one roof, where researchers can interact and work together, could lead to more collaborations. It also could help in staff recruitment and retention when there is a world-class facility in which to work, Lardy said.
The first step is to see whether the project gets included in the governor’s budget proposal.
Lardy said, while it would be great to secure the total funding this biennium, a phased approach could be workable.
“We’d see this as something to be on the NDSU campus for the next century,” Lardy said of the facility.