131 Scovell Hall
University of Kentucky
By Katie Pratt
Photography by Stephen Patton
Entrepreneurs can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars accomplishing these necessary and important steps with private companies across the United States, or they can come to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. For the past three years, specialists with the College’s Food Systems Innovation Center have helped large and small, new and established entrepreneurs fulfill these same requirements at a much lower cost. The center places particular emphasis on helping Kentucky-based food firms develop commercial quality products.
“The center is filling an enormous need,” said Tim Woods, UK agricultural economist. “There are a lot of clients that are farmers market based that are looking to ramp up to the next level, and the center gives us the opportunity to deliver a whole suite of educational training programs to help them get there.”
Since it was established in 2010 with funds from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund, the center has served more than 520 clients, with the number increasing each year. While there is an emphasis placed on helping Kentucky-based companies, companies across the United States have used the resource.
Though the center is young, College specialists have been offering their expertise to companies for many years.
Winston Industries had working relationships with specialists even before the center’s formation. The Louisville company employs about 150 people and gained initial prominence for developing the fryers used to cook KFC chicken.
In addition to the fryers, they’ve developed and marketed several other breakthrough technologies in restaurant equipment including CVap ovens. CVap is the company’s technology that allows oven operators to control air and food moisture temperatures. Controlling both temperatures allows foods to reach and maintain their optimal level of doneness and texture for a longer period of time. CVaps are used around the world by the food service industry from fast food to professional chefs to school cafeterias.
For the past five years, Chef Barry Yates, director of innovation at Winston Industries, has brought the company’s CVap ovens to Melissa Newman, the center’s director and UK associate professor of food microbiology and food safety. They’ve collaborated on several process validation studies.
“I think it’s one of the more unique relationships between a university and a business across the country,” Yates said. “They’re about innovation, and we’re about innovation. They’re about science. We’re about science.”
The first project Yates and Newman worked on was validating the safe processing of proteins in the CVap ovens. Currently, they are in the midst of a process validation project to determine the oven temperature needed for food to reach an optimal level of quality and doneness and maintain federal food safety standards.
“Process validation is critical to where we’re going now, because we’re hoping to change the food code,” Yates said. “I need a nonbiased, third party that uses scientific methods to validate what we’re doing is safe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is not going to pay any attention to us on this until we can bring them verified third party data.”
Newman agreed. “For a study like this, the USDA is going to want to see that you’re not perpetuating the growth of bacteria, you’re not making a product that’s on the edge of being dangerous, and that product is foolproof to the point that individuals who are new or untrained in the food service industry can safely operate it.”
The center has allowed College specialists to streamline their services into a one-stop shop for established and budding entrepreneurs. As the center’s coordinator, Angela Anandappa is usually the first person a potential client will speak to. She helps clients go through the required permitting processes, performs nutritional evaluations, and initiates discussions with the proper UK specialists.
“Every project is customized to meet the needs of the individual clients,” Anandappa said.
Newman conducts shelf life and food safety studies. UK meat scientist Gregg Rentfrow specializes in meats and sensory panels. Woods and fellow agricultural economist Wuyang Hu perform market studies and help clients with all aspects of marketing. Joe O’Leary, UK extension associate professor in Animal and Food Sciences, examines preparation methods of canned products and determines whether they meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration food safety regulations, a review that is required before products can go on the market. O’Leary is one of only a handful of FDA process reviewers in the state.