This stunning success will be delivered when the co-op builds a new $240 million mozzarella plant at Clandeboye, near Timaru, which will be the biggest foodservice investment in New Zealand dairy industry history.
It is also believed to be one of the largest investments in implementing a new dairy-processing technology anywhere in the world over the past decade.
By any measure this is a great victory – for the farmers who own the co-operative, the dairy industry they serve, the regional economy that will benefit from the build and 100 permanent new jobs, and the national economy through export returns.
But it could so easily have been a very different story, one about a grand opportunity lost.
The co-op had actually commercialised the core of the new mozzarella technology some time ago. However, we didn’t fully understand how the different stages of the process contributed to the structure and performance of the final cheese, so there were a number of quality issues with product from the original factory.
There was a risk that the first plant would be the last.
But we believed we had a great technology and, as the old saying goes, it was back to the drawing board.
We realised that to take that great technology to commercial reality on a large scale we needed a better understanding of the fundamental structure of the cheese. We needed to build a body of science and technology that linked the changes that occur during the cheese-making process to the performance of the cheese all the way through to the consumer experience on the final pizza.
For that to happen Fonterra needed a partner able to see the opportunity for the industry and economy, one willing to support that build in capability by investing in different scientific disciplines that aligned with the co-op’s traditional strengths.
The Transforming the Dairy Value Chain (TDVC) Primary Growth Partnership programme was that crucial support.
It is a seven-year, $170 million innovation programme led by commercial partners, including DairyNZ and Fonterra, and partnered by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
This allowed the co-op the opportunity to look into the science of mozzarella, to seek a deeper understanding that would enable us to stretch our technology to its fullest extent.
It has enabled us to build a multi-organisational team that has brought together expertise in material science and polymer physics alongside our more traditional strengths in dairy chemistry and food engineering.
Some of that great work has been done in universities and research institutes around New Zealand and the rest of the globe. Much of it has come from a team of researchers at the Fonterra Research and Development Centre (FRDC) in Palmerston North.
They have been focusing on the design of the commercial scale plant, combining the scientific and technical insights with experience from the existing factory to produce a commercially viable process.
The performance of mozzarella on a pizza is typically judged by subjective criteria – the extent the cheese stretches before it breaks; and the number and colour of the blisters that form on the top when the pizza is cooked.
Treating mozzarella like a physical material and applying tensile tests has enabled us to see how the structure changes when force is applied and what structure leads to the best stretch.
Using mathematical models and small-scale equipment we have been able to predict how the design and operation of mixing equipment will impact the finished cheese. From this the process development team have been able to determine the optimum operating conditions for a plant producing many tonnes of cheese per hour, benefiting the performance of the current plant and the design of the new one.
This combination of in-depth scientific investigation coupled with practical application has proved extremely powerful.
Its success has been recognised around the world. Recently, an international panel of global dairy science experts, including Allen Foegeding from North Carolina State University and Erich Windhab from ETH Zurich, concluded that the food structure design collaboration at FRDC was “one of the top three and possibly the top programme in the world”.
That great science has helped the co-op take a bigger slice of a growing global market, to the benefit of the dairy industry and national economy.
The researchers, technologists and scientists at FRDC and further afield are looking beyond the current capital project to future product enhancements. Studying the role of fat in delivering the baking and sensory properties has helped us to see how we might reduce or replace fat with other dairy components to create lower fat mozzarella options.
Further studies of the interactions between the structure, process and product make up the core of a Food Material Science approach to innovation in other food products, including UHT whipping creams.
In this application creams need to be stable in liquid form throughout the supply chain, be easily and quickly whipped to incorporate a large volume of air, and then remain stable in the form of attractive cake decorations for over 24 hours.
These are just two of many products that will be developed and created using great science as part of the co-op’s plan to grow a $5 billion food-service business by 2023.
They are a clear signal of Fonterra’s ambition to significantly boost its value-add business and also the value of public-private partnerships in supporting the great science needed to get there.