New meat-science research facility aims to become a product-innovation hub and skill-training boot camp for Ontario’s meat and poultry producers
Located about 100 kilometres west of Toronto, the University of Guelph is rightfully renowned and respected as an elite academic institution in the fields of food and agricultural sciences, animal and human health, biodiversity and environmental technologies, genomics and computing—providing more life science expertise per capita than any other post-secondary school in North America.
Founded in 1964, it also plays a massive role in contributing to the dynamic local economy that has attracted a number of high-profile food and other manufacturing companies to the area over the years, including meat processing giant Cargill and truck manufacturer Linamar, among other successful business enterprises.
And while the recent opening of the new Centre for Meat Innovation and Technology (CMIT) on the university campus may not rank as one of the school’s biggest or boldest expansions in recent history, it has the potential to provide Ontario’s meat and poultry producers with an exceptional competitive edge through continuous training and education services, along with significant new product development and commercialization capabilities.
Operated by the Guelph-based industry group Meat & Poultry Ontario, the new centre currently employs a staff of four people, along with director Luis Garcia, with capacity to butcher, cut, trim and process beef, pork or lamb in small production runs for many local food businesses who are not set up for efficient and cost-effective production of smaller product batches.
Despite its size and scale—contained within three separate adjoining rooms equipped with various manual and semiautomatic processing equipment—the centre is nevertheless a federally inspected facility that can legally ship the products made there across Canada, as Garcia points out.
“Our new centre will support the meat industry in different ways,” says Garcia, a former Academic Chair at the nearby Conestoga College’s School of Engineering, Technology and Trades.
“One of them is by offering training to employees: both for current employees in the in the industry, but also training for anybody who wants to learn some new skills,” Garcia relates.
“Another way is by conducting joint projects with companies that are looking to implement new technologies, like robotics and automation, or to develop new products and processes.
“Then we’re also going to conduct projects in meat-science and meat research, which is something that the university has already been doing for decades,” he reveals, “but alas not that many people know about it,” he says.
“So we are going to promote their science capabilities by encouraging more and stronger connections with companies operating within the meat industry.”
Garcia says the 40-year-old Meat & Poultry Ontario association—representing over 200 independent meat and poultry producers—is extremely excited to be working with the university and having access to its space and utilities for CMIT, grateful to the university for donating its space and utilities for the project, as well as grateful to the industry for donating the vital pieces of meat-processing machinery and equipment.
“We have had unbelievable support from equipment suppliers,” Garcia extols.
“We have already received about $150,000 worth of new equipment since March,” Garcia says, “along with about $2,000 worth of knives and sharpeners for our training courses.”
Existing equipment at the facilities includes a Scott smokehouse, a Groen mixer kettle; a Hollymatic meat saw; a ScottPec vacuum packer; a Handtmann stuffer; a BOSS vacuum-packer; a Sani Marc cleaning and sanitation equipment; Lacal slaughterhouse and deboning equipment; and multiple-cutting tables and accessories to replicate the industrial meat production process on a pilot plant scale.
The generous donations received to date will go a long way towards training the next generation of professional butchers and upgrading the skills of various workers already in the meat business wishing to expand their skill set, Garcia told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the centre.
“Cutting big carcasses into halves, splitting them into quarters, making smaller cuts out of those pieces… all these steps require different skills and tools of the trade,” Garcia says.
“We offer many different types of training for different applications both in-house and in the field, whatever suits the client best.
“Everything here is based on collaboration with academia and the private sector,” says Garcia, describing the centre as a perfect collaborative partner for smaller startup companies looking to put their products into the market.
Says Garcia: “If you’re a start-up developing a new product, and you want to make say 500 kilograms of a particular sausage recipe, you are going to have a hard time finding a place or a co-packer to do that—you would need a lot more volume than that.
“But that’s just the kind of job that we could do for them at this new centre,” says Garcia, “and the fact that we can ship that product to anywhere in Canada is a big bonus.”
Similarly, larger meat processors can use the centre for specific small-run niche products in small quantities that do not justify the time and effort of time-consuming line changeovers and extra maintenance, according to Garcia.
“We’ll be trying to reach out to and work with anybody who wants to work with us,” he says, “including all levels of government and various other academic institutions across Canada.
“We want to be the connecting hub for the meat industry, whereby companies that require help can get it from us directly, or we can connect them with the right people,” Garcia expands.
“The end goal is to strengthen the industry and make it more competitive,” Garcia states. “That’s what drives us.”
Maintaining a competitive meat sector is definitely a major economic priority for the province.
According to Meat & Poultry Ontario, Ontario’s food and beverage meat and poultry sector is the single largest manufacturing employer in Ontario. The meat and poultry industry employs 25 per cent of all of Ontario’s food and beverage processing industry workers—and generates $11.2 billion of the province’s $45 billion food- and beverage-processing industry revenue.
Like many other industries in the province, the meat and poultry sector must face up to the new challenges of labour shortages, Garcia acknowledges, making training, education and automation vitally important priorities for the centre.
“Our mission to help our meat companies compete globally,” he says, “and being competitive really means doing more with less resources and input costs.
“The industry is competing against other sectors of industry to find qualified people,” he says, “and there’s just not enough of those for everyone.
“Hence we see automation and robotics as key technologies that we could help meat companies adopt at their facilities,” Garcia states. “This could range from very simple things, like moving products inside a facility using an automated system, and perhaps adding a robot to put those products onto a conveyor belt, instead of doing it all manually.
“These are not extremely expensive things to do—most companies can afford them,” Garcia asserts.
With food safety always a major area of concern for the industry, the new centre aims to provide plenty of training in various hygienic and sanitation practices and systems, according to Garcia.
“Cleaning and sanitation is another area where we’re going to be doing a lot of hands-on training,” he says, “with different intensity levels for different audiences.
“The principle is that if you are a manager or supervisor,” Garcia explains, “you should know how to do the work of those who you are supervising.
“Our training will give managers and supervisors the opportunity to apply a foam and then grab a hose to rinse it off,” says Garcia, adding the training covers all aspects of plant and equipment sanitation, including formulating the sop mixtures, rinsing, applying sanitizers, identifying hard-to-clean spots, and so on.
“We train people how to actually do things,” he sums up, “rather than just having them learn how things should be done.”