Effort focuses on helping state's food industry to be more competitive

Are small food-processing companies in Pennsylvania able to keep up with changing trends in the industry? A new partnership is making every effort to ensure they can.

Obesity is rampant, food-borne illnesses are rising and the food supply chain is now global, leaving all but the largest food manufacturers scrambling to compete. How can smaller companies create healthier products, improve food safety and increase efficiencies, when they lack in-house resources?

A new effort in southeastern Pennsylvania aims to address this with a center that pools Penn State, industry and other resources to help the food processing industry become more competitive.

The center, yet to be named, “will help companies become more creative in responding to trends such as redesigning junk food and developing functional foods -- foods and food components that provide a health benefit,” said Walt Fullam, director of Continuing Education at Penn State Berks. The campus is overseeing creation of the center, to be located in a Keystone Innovation Zone in Reading, Pa.

Food processing is a $24.6 billion business in Pennsylvania, and 75 percent of the state’s 1,500 food processing companies are located within a 50-mile radius of Berks County. In addition to the region’s concentration of small- to national-brand companies that process snack foods, dairy, meat, mushrooms and other food products, the area has a large potential workforce, making it an ideal location for the center.

While still in the planning stages, the center is taking shape with input from the food processing industry.

“The meetings [held last fall] are a validation that the industry sees the need and value of the center,” Fullam said. Partners in the effort include Penn State’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) and College of Agricultural Sciences, Berks County Industrial Development Authority and U.S. Department of Agriculture, among others.

One of the center’s first projects is already under way. A task force is working on a Web portal that will list information and resources pertinent to food manufacturing. When the center is up and running, there will be opportunities for Penn State faculty to collaborate with companies on research and for students to participate in service-learning projects.

From Old to New

As planning continues, Fullam said he anticipates the center will collaborate with other entities involved in similar work, including Penn State’s Center for Food Innovation, founded in 2004 and directed by Peter Bordi, associate professor of hospitality management at Penn State's University Park campus. The center also will work closely with the Department of Food Science at University Park campus and other University units.

The new center in southeastern Pennsylvania also plans to provide pilot scale-up facilities and rental space where companies can test new product ideas, said Timothy V. Franklin, OEWD director.

“The center will align Penn State assets with economic opportunities in the region,” he said, helping companies with not only technology, but also with process and supply chain innovation.

Companies that need help with food safety or dairy issues will be able to turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Regional Research Center, which has its own pilot plant. The Penn State center hopes to develop a similar facility, complementing the USDA’s, for other food processing projects.

As Thomas C. McKeon, executive director of Berks County Industrial Development Authority, pointed out, “It’s extremely important that we begin the transformation of our economy from the old manufacturing base to the new 21st century knowledge economy. The new center will allow us to make the transition.”

This article is from the spring issue of Penn State Outreach magazine.

Contacts: 
Last Updated November 18, 2010