The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.
Episode 019 - The Cutting Edge
Have you ever wondered where companies go to develop their secret recipes and test new food processing technologies? Canadian innovators go to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's research centre in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec to develop and test new products. Listen to Sabine Ribéreau, the pilot plant manager, and Deena Alari, the research and development manager from Smuckers, as they discuss the Saint-Hyacinthe Industrial Program and how it can help get your products on grocery store shelves.
Sabine: Me, when I arrived at the research centre, the first time I saw it, it was . . . it was like a toy store. There's a huge, huge, huge amount of equipment in there. So for an entrepreneur who wants to start up a company, who can't afford equipment that can cost several thousand dollars or even millions of dollars, I mean that's incredible. To have that available, that's incredible.
Kirk: Welcome to the First Sixteen. I'm Kirk Finken.
Sara: And I'm Sara Boivin-Chabot. The voice you just heard was Sabine Ribéreau, the Pilot Plant Manager at the Saint-Hyacinthe Research and Development Centre. For anyone involved in food processing, you'll want to listen close. This episode was tailor-made for you.
Kirk: You can hear in Sabine's voice that tone, that palpable excitement – like a kid in a candy shop.
Sara: She is talking about the cutting edge equipment that she is in charge of and that is available to Canadian food processors, big and small – all within the framework of the Industrial Program.
Kirk: The program started in the early 90s. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers at Saint-Hyacinthe had amassed dozens of the newest equipment in food processing to analyse food and production processes.
Sara: But there was more technology than scientists. Not all machines were in use every day.
Kirk: So they came up with an idea: you know, what if there was a facility where industry members could use all the equipment the scientists weren't currently using? And what if they could give large businesses a testing ground to experiment with new procedures, without overhauling their own facilities?
Sara: And what if you were a small business with a fantastic recipe, but you didn't have the budget to make it a reality? What if you had a place to make the product first, get it on the shelves, and then invest in your production lines after you've already seen its success?
Kirk: Well, I think we can stop with the "what ifs," because it's not a question. It's a reality. And we're going to hear today from Deena Alari, a senior research and development manager at Smuckers, to see what this treasure trove of tech represents for her and her company when it comes time to innovate and test new products.
Sara: But first, we have Sabine to give us all the details on the Industrial Program from the AAFC point of view. Hi Sabine. To start, could you tell us exactly what is Saint-Hycinthe's Industrial Program?
Sabine: Well, the Industrial Program is a service offered to agri-food industries who are looking to conduct small-scale processing trials or to do research and development for products or processes. The Program rents equipment and our specialized technologists train clients how to use it.
Sara: And everyone uses it? Small, medium, and large businesses? Scientists too?
Sabine: Yes, our plant is a little gem, as much for business owners as for AAFC researchers. We have equipment that allows food processing by processes that are well-known, like autoclaves and pasteurizers or fermenters. But we also have processes like omic heating or pulsed electric fields. Researchers from Agriculture Canada, or researchers from the industry can work with these processes, and in that way they can support the food processing industry in Canada by allowing innovation and market development for agri-food companies.
Sara: I love how you describe it. "A little gem." Why is it a gem?
Sabine: It's a gem because we're so versatile. We have a lot of equipment, so we can meet a lot of people's needs. We have small, medium, and large businesses, each with very different challenges. For example, we can help a small business scale up – that is to say, to go from a recipe made in a kitchen to a recipe made with industrial equipment. On the other hand, we can help a big company develop new recipes – in other words, the client will come to try their new product with our equipment, instead of stopping their own big production lines.
Sara: Okay, so let's say I'm a small business. I come to you. How will it work? What's going to happen?
Sabine: Well, I'm going to talk with you about your project, find out what kind of product you want to make, because I need to know if you're making something that, you know, I have the equipment for.. Then I also need to see if my equipment has the capacity for it, because yes, we're an industrial plant, but we're not a factory that can produce tons of product a day. We're here to do small volumes. After that, I'll talk with my technologists to see, for example, if we don't have a piece of equipment, if there's anything we can arrange or modify to help you. Then, we'll complete the program's registration forms. If we can help you, we'll do that, then we'll give you an appointment, and we'll start production. It's as simple as that. We do have some equipment that's a little too complicated for you to use and play with on your own, but if that's not the case, if you're using simple machines, then we'll show you how to use the them and you'll be completely independent, 100%, when you make your product. And then you'll leave . . . you'll arrive with raw ingredients, and you'll leave with your finished product in jars or in packaging, whatever you choose. Then you can take it to market, or start doing market research, or maybe . . . you could be at different stages. Right now, we've got clients coming in, they absolutely haven't started at all, they've just made their little recipe in their kitchen and they want to open their market, start looking for their customers. So they're going to come in and make a few products to maybe have a variety, but in a bigger volume than if they're doing everything in their kitchen pan. But we also have people who have already passed that stage and want to come produce something a little bit bigger.
Sara: What's the final objective?
Sabine: Well, it depends on the company's objective. I have companies that come once a year because, for example, they have a crop in their fields and they process it once a year. And so, they'll come for a week, 15 days, once a year to process that product. Then I have companies that . . . them, they're different. I have one company that comes in every week to make their product, and every week they sell it. They sell to delicatessens, so every week they get their orders. Then I have companies that started in the plant on a small scale. They started to establish their market, and now their market is established, so we're renting them a whole mini factory. They're like a little business right in our plant, and they rent the equipment, they process, they put out their products . . . they're putting out their products every day, they're there every day. They're like an . . . like an incubation. They're on the point of . . . you know, in 2 or 3 years, they're going to be too big for us because they're going to need bigger equipment. They're going to need to produce more volume. We're not going to be able to serve them anymore, so we're going to have to ask them to give the space to a smaller company, because for us, the whole point is to be a stepping stone for them to build their own business.
Sara: Then, well, in a more normal year than the last two, let's say, how many companies come through your facility?
Sabine: I'd say at least 100, for sure. Because some we see just once, others we see for days at a time. It depends. It depends . . . from year to year, it fluctuates a lot, because I'll have clients who stay for a long time, I'll have clients who just come and go. I see everything here. So, if we're just counting the clients that are coming in, going out, I have some who just come in because their equipment is broken at their own factory, and they're asking, you know, "Oh, my metal detector is broken, can I come in with all my crates so I can send them out?" So they come. They pass their crates through the machine, and they leave, they're there for 4 hours. And I don't see them again! [laughs] That's how it is, we do all kinds of things, we try to help as much as possible. We try to . . . us at the Program, we try to give the companies wings.
Sara: Is this only for people in Quebec? Or can anyone apply to use the facilities?
Sabine: We work a lot with people from Quebec. We have a few from Ontario, because, well, they're close by, eh, people come and use the equipment and then leave, we don't send it out left and right. People have to come to us. Of course, you have to be able to travel, and if you come from far away, then there are hotel expenses, thatincreases all the costs. But I have received calls from people in Brazil. I've had calls from people in Manitoba. I've had, you know . . . there are people who are really interested in coming to try equipment, or coming to work with us. It's . . . everyone, I'd say. We try to keep our doors open to everyone.
Kirk: Brazil! Wow. That's a long way to go.
Sara: But if you can get your product and your personnel all the way out here, it's definitely worth it for the facility. Not to mention for the guidance of Sabine and her team.
Kirk: Yeah, did she speak to you about her team a little bit? Because it seems like a program like this needs some expertise in the house.
Sara: Absolutely. Have a listen.
Sabine: My team is composed of five people. I have people who specialize in meat products, plant products, animal products, dairy products. I have some who, in a previous life, were inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, others who were quality managers in slaughterhouses. And there are others who have worked on fermentation, that's true, I have someone who specializes in fermentation. And so, all that learning, all that knowledge . . . I also have an employee who used to specialize in washing equipment, another who specialized in dairy and sold dairy by-products. Then he also worked a lot in the dairy industry. So they have an enormous amount of expertise in . . . in all areas. So our team, what we offer, is all our knowledge so that clients can return to their facilities with their own new expertise to use when they build their business.
Sara: Okay, so tell me about one of your success stories.
Sabine: Well, we had . . . we had a company called Happy Yak who came to us. I don't know if you've heard of them. They sell their products . . . they're these dehydrated products that you add hot water to and eat. It's a super great company. They went through us, they started little by little by using our freeze-dryers, then they moved to our mini factories. And then, when we weren't big enough anymore because they were producing a lot, they built their own factory and bought the same freeze-dryers we had. And recently, they came to see us because they found their process wasn't fast enough and they wanted to see if they could freeze-dry faster. And since they didn't want to stop their production at their own factory, they came to us. They came to try little modifications, to see if that affected their product or not. Then they left happy. And we were happy too.
Sara: Does that happen a lot? Bigger companies coming back to you to test out little tweaks in their process?
Sabine: Yes, yes, we have a lot. We've made people jealous with the latest equipment we got. We bought some new Pastos, a new UHT, all that. Of course, it's not big volumes like the ones they have in their factories, but it can be worthwhile because, as I said before, they don't have to stop their own production lines, they come to us to try it out. The difficulty for a company that uses . . . for a small company, or a new company to use a new process is that this new process isn't necessarily recognized by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. So they have to explain and demonstrate to the CFIA that this process is as valid as the traditional process. That's a lot of what our researchers are working on. Our researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are coming into our plants and using traditional processes and new processes, like the pulsed electric field, and they compare the two. And what is interesting is that, at the end, they'll write scientific papers and present them to the scientific community. And that will be the basis afterwards for any new process that can be used by a company. If the company wants to use pulsed electric fields, they can say, "Look, there have been studies done" and the CFIA can check those studies. That's going to help further development a little. It's going to increase the number of processes available to food companies because, if you look at the past, =everybody was sterilizing like crazy. And now we're pasteurizing. Over time, new processes are created, and new processes are accepted. Microwaves are accepted now, whereas originally they weren't. There are a lot of things that are going to evolve in food processing, and that's thanks to science, thanks to researchers, and thanks to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and that'll allow us to use new processes which'll really benefit the market.
Kirk: You know, like all the excitement over the food processing angle, I forgot about the added value of that research aspect as well.
Sara: Yeah, it's really great. The program was designed for food processors to benefit from the equipment of researchers. But the researchers are also benefitting from the presence of the food processors.
Kirk: So, let's check on the other side of the program with Deena, senior research and development manager with Smuckers. Hey Deena. To start, can you invite us into your kitchen and describe to us what you've been doing at Saint-Hyacinthe?
Deena: So, we use Saint-Hyacinthe to conduct trials for our milk business. They have a plethora of equipment for batch processing. So we do our projects for the milk business, for innovation-type projects, where we're looking to produce something but on a small scale because we don't have a small scale pilot plant.
Sara: What's the advantage for Smuckers to work with the industrial program?
Deena: It's that you can work on a small scale if you don't have the equipment internally. But also, it's a tremendous advantage to work on a small scale. So normally in product development, you start on the bench and you do things on a very small scale. But then you scale up to something like a pilot plant.
Kirk: What would you do if you didn't have the Industrial Program?
Deena: We'd have to do everything on a larger scale, which is... It's not as efficient because it's much harder to play with different variables on a large scale. So working on a small scale, we can try different things and it's much more efficient.
Kirk: So how many iterations of a product do you generally do before you take it from Saint Hyacinthe to your own plant?
Deena: It can really change. You know, if you're working with formula, to get the right formula, etc. To be honest, I don't really keep track because I just do the work. I do remember when I was younger, I did an alfredo sauce and I did forty eight different variations of it over a few months.
Kirk: Do you still personally eat alfredo sauce after that one?
Deena: Yes. It's funny because I've worked in food quite a long time and you would think you'd get sick of it, but I always find my appreciation for a category actually grows, it doesn't diminish.
Kirk: I think my appreciation's growing too. It's not something everyone thinks about when they see a jar of alfredo sauce at the grocery store, just, like, how much effort went into making sure it's a quality product.
Sara: Right? It's definitely broadened my perspective. So many people involved at so many stages to make sure we have good, safe, high-quality food. And the Industrial Program provides a great testing ground to ensure that quality.
Kirk: Speaking of which, before we wrap this up, let's go back to Sabine for one last word. Because I'm kinda dying to know, with all this amazing equipment, what's her favourite machine?
Sabine: Actually, I have two, so I'll say two. The first one would be the ultra high temperature processing system. What is exciting about this machine is that it's very flexible. It has four modes of sterilization. We can sterilize by plates, by tube, by injection of steam directly in the product, or by infusion of the product in steam, but it also makes it possible to homogenize the product at various stages of the process. That's what's so good about this machine. It's versatility is really nice. The second one, the second type of equipment uses pulsed electric fields. As I said earlier, these are new technologies and what is exciting is that this equipment processes solid or liquid foods, because we have two. And these are gentle treatments that, using electric pulses, reduce the microbial load in food by destroying the cell membranes of bacteria. It's really a top-notch machine.
Kirk: I understand her excitement about those two technologies. They really represent new methods of homogenization and pasteurization which seem to have multiple benefits.
Sara: I know! I've had a chance to go there once. It's awesome. Like, I'm not even a scientist or a food processor and I wanted to try all the machinery, it was so nice.
Kirk: Yeah, and I've heard some of it is pretty special in terms of the results that it can give. I almost think that this is a good opportunity for us to go and shoot some video and maybe put it up on our new Instagram channel, just to give people some visual insights as to what that's all about, because it is pretty special.
Sara: That would be so nice. Yeah, talking about Instagram, AAFC now has Instagram. CDN_Agriculture, if you want to follow it.
Kirk: Yep, and also don't forget to subscribe to your favourite podcast, The First Sixteen. We've got lots of fascinating stories lined up about the most innovative ideas in the field of agriculture and food processing – ideas you might be able to apply to your own business.
Sara: And until then Kirk, you know what to do?
Kirk: Mmhmm. Try something new.
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