FPRF: Still Standing After 50 Years, But What's Next?

By David Meeker, PhD, MBA
Director of Research, Fats and Proteins Research Foundation

Even at the age of 50, the Fats and Proteins Research Foundation (FPRF) is a relatively young organization. Many in the rendering industry can recall nearly all of the foundation’s leaders, from Dr. Fred Bisplinghoff to Dr. Gary Pearl to Dr. Sergio Nates, each of whom brought unique perspectives and initiatives to the industry. Rather than rehash FPRF’s history, which is well covered in Essential Rendering in chapters written by all three of the organization’s past leaders, this article will focus attention on the contributions of agricultural research to society, where rendering fits in, and how recent changes impact what must be done to compete going into the future. No organization can operate the same as it has for the past 50 years and remain competitive, including FPRF.

Research is the lifeblood of all industries, and the source of competitiveness and innovation. Over the last three decades, the versatility of rendered by-products has led to their increased use in many applications. Similarly, there have been numerous technological advances and regulatory changes in the last few years that directly impact the recycling of animal by-products into value-added products. Many of these changes have forced the reevaluation of the processing and use of rendered products, and have necessarily also changed approaches needed among the rendering scientific community.

Challenges of Agricultural Science
Dr. Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. This chair was established to address the ethical, social, and political challenges related to natural resources, public policy, and agriculture. In a recent article in Science Progress, he stated, “Indeed, while agricultural innovations have made it possible for six billion humans to live comfortably on the same land that once supported only 1.5 billion, many challenges remain to ensuring our global food system continues to support our society in a sustainable way.” In this brief sentence, Thompson summarized the great returns the world has reaped from agricultural research, putting it in terms of the increased number of people supported on the same land. Other economists have pegged the return on investment to be in the range of 40 to 60 percent per year, but most agree on one thing: much more research is needed to truly gauge the return on investment of research.

Thompson went on to say, “Agricultural science is one of the great accomplishments of American intellectual culture,” but also said that many challenges remain.

Research Investments have Dropped Significantly
The public commitment to agricultural research has dropped significantly in real dollars for more than 30 years. Research has become increasingly “biotech” as incremental improvements continue to be made in plant and animal genetics, but bold ventures into new areas are lacking, as is support for old-fashioned production research. The infrastructure of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the land-grant university system in each of the 50 states is seriously underfunded and jeopardizing the ability to make personnel, equipment, animals, and land available for the type of cooperative projects that FPRF has depended on from its beginning.

FPRF, its members, and others in the rendering industry find it difficult to invest without seeing more returns, but the industry also cannot afford not to invest in developing future opportunities. If anything, changes in the system dictate more investment and involvement in order to be competitive in the future. There remains plenty of infrastructure to do the small number of experiments needed by the rendering industry, but engaging and interesting researchers in the industry’s problems is a different challenge than it used to be. Graduates with agricultural backgrounds (let alone rendering knowledge) are harder and harder to come by. Graduate students, who often are the research workforce behind data collection for experiments, are less available as funding for their support has dried up.

FPRF’s Strategic Plan
Recognizing some of these new challenges, and faced with increasing member apathy, FPRF engaged in a strategic planning process in 2010. At that time, the organization’s leadership asked, “What do we need to get done in the next 24 months to have FPRF’s research model known as world class?” The group answered with:

1. Establish a predictable and strong research contracting and approval process to identify and fund research that addresses the most strategically important issues and opportunities of the industry; and

2. Conduct research with investigators, institutions, and alliances where FPRF has a mutually beneficial relationship and a clear set of mutual expectations.

Regarding communications, the leadership also asked, “What do we need to get done in the next 24 months to establish FPRF as the best source of knowledge regarding rendering?” The group answered with:

1. Conduct a gap analysis of internal and external communications needs; and

2. Take the results of the gap analysis and build a recommendation for the board that includes an action plan and budget that can be implemented over time to include the following actions:
a. Add a layman’s summary to all existing and future reports.
b. Package and deliver a summary of all pertinent existing research so it is easy for members and decision-makers to access and understand.
c. Match the delivery of the information in the style and format FPRF members, customers, and decision-makers need.

The FPRF membership was then asked, “What do we need to get done in the next 24 months to make renderers confident their contributions will make a significant, measurable difference so they will join FPRF?” The group answered with:

1. Build a clear and compelling value proposition to current and potential members with simple benchmarks tracked over time with action items to include:
a. Economic benchmarking with competing and related value-added commodities and products.
b. Encouragement of members to get involved and make a difference.
c. Conducting a gap analysis of FPRF staffing needs to meet or exceed member expectations.
d. Clear communication of the specific research that can only be accomplished with additional member investments.

What’s Been Done Since the Strategic Plan?
The FPRF is now under new direction following this aggressive strategic plan. In addition to increasing focus and direction in requests for proposals (RFPs) to ensure funded research is important to renderers, is efficient, and is effective, the foundation has set itself up to engage more with researchers before and during projects to get the most usable knowledge for each dollar. A new RFP is on the FPRF website, and a good response is expected from the university system in submitting competitive at-large proposals.

Since funds are limited, it is necessary to obtain as much information as possible from research grants. The research objectives for rendered products should be directed toward solving a significant problem, improving product safety/quality, chemical or biological modifications to increase value, or nutritional studies to improve utilization in animal diets. For the near term, FPRF has decided to focus work in aquaculture, swine, and poultry nutrition aimed directly at gaps in the current knowledge necessary for diet formulators, including critical work in nutritional characteristics of rendered products. Significant research funding will be dedicated to these nutrition studies. Any research institution can compete for these funds by submitting at-large proposals to FPRF, which are different from Animal Co-Products Research and Education Center (ACREC) proposals, described later.

In the quest to get more renderers to take interest and invest both money and time, it is understood that communications is a common thread through all needed activities. Concepts to enhance communications are to:

• engage researchers in a way that helps them under-stand the rendering industry and its challenges to generate increasingly relevant projects;

• select research projects that increase marketability and safety of rendered products, and efficiency of the production process;

• communicate the value of these research projects to the rendering industry; and

• communicate research results directly to investors, customers, and other stakeholders in a timely fashion.

Various methods to communicate these efforts and research results will be used, some that have worked in the past and new methods that show promise. The National Renderers Association (NRA) recently hired Dr. Jessica Meisinger as director of education and communication to help manage the many activities related to these challenges.

The FPRF partnered with Clemson University to establish ACREC in 2005. A fair analysis of the projects and results stemming from this investment would lead most observers to conclude this has been a very productive endeavor. Significant investments have been made at ACREC to develop a critical mass of science and experience on rendering issues.

However, several things led to a reexamination of ACREC last year. Priorities of the rendering industry have evolved since the perspective in 2005 of possible drastic restrictions on the use of rendered products in feed because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Research programs are, by nature, slow to change direction and FPRF’s partnership with ACREC was somewhat hampered by a complicated contract arrangement, less than optimal communications between Clemson and FPRF, and questions about return on investment. This led to soul-searching on each side, a realization that the center and the relationship was well worth saving, and finally a renewed agreement in April 2012.

The new agreement has simplified language with responsibilities and communications clearly delineated, and is flexible and amenable when changes are needed to respond to economic, scientific, and industry conditions in the future.

The current priority at ACREC is to provide data that will support validation of cooker operations and thermal death times of Salmonella, Clostridium, and other feed/food safety hazards along with plant operations issues.

Strategic Partners
In the modern era, another organization developed independently but with a similar mission to FPRF. The Poultry Protein and Fat Council (PPFC) of the US Poultry and Egg Association sponsors research relating to the poultry rendering industry. PPFC has funded proposals to develop new and increased utilization of rendered poultry products by demonstrating their efficacy in poultry, aquaculture, livestock, and companion animal rations. The group has funded work to improve industrial applications of poultry fat by chemical, microbial, or mechanical modification with other research focusing on wastewater management, efficient operations, and product quality.

In recent years, PPFC has participated in FPRF’s project selection discussions and co-funded several projects at ACREC to get more work done and stretch FPRF funding further.

In addition to the well-known land grant system that participates in at-large projects submitted to FPRF and is the system behind its ACREC partner, Clemson, there is another important public research institution involved in rendering research – USDA’s ARS. About $743,000 per year has been invested in recent years in the “Biobased Industrial Products from Food Animal Processing By-Products” research project led by Dr. Rafael Garcia at the Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) in Wyndmoor, PA. This project is a miniscule part of the total ARS annual budget of more than $1 billion, but it has been targeted for elimination by the USDA in the highly political and difficult development of the federal budget, even though the administration is recommending a modest increase for ARS to $1.1 billion (see “Research Project Faces Possible Elimination” in the April 2012 Render). The NRA and others are fighting this severe cut.

The ERRC has been extremely beneficial and supportive to the research efforts of FPRF and animal by-products in ARS’ Fats, Oils, and Animal Co-products Unit. It is essentially the only group in ARS doing exploratory research in adding value to animal by-products, meat and bone meal, tallow, fats, hides, and wool. The work collaborates with those research priorities established for FPRF and ACREC. Numerous biodiesel and bioenergy projects have been conducted that utilize both animal fats and rendered protein products.

What’s Next for Agricultural and Rendering Research in the Modern Age?
The synergic research efforts of FPRF, ACREC, USDA/ARS, and the allied industries is of major significance to all renderers, meat producers and processors, oleochemical industries, and their customers. Research important to the rendering industry is facing cuts at all levels and virtually all institutions are involved. At a time when critical public funding support of the land-grant system, ARS, and every other source of scientific knowledge useful to the future of rendering is decreasing, membership and funding for FPRF seems to be waning as well. This makes the follow-up to the FPRF strategic plan even more critical.

Reiterating this fact, Thompson stated, “Yet despite these pressing challenges, Americans have been disinvesting in agricultural research for the last three decades. Our agricultural innovation engine has become too narrowly focused on piecemeal adjustments…this leaves us in a dangerous position with too few options for the future.” He is commenting on a very big picture, responding that many challenges remain to ensure the global food system continues to support society. Yet, even if we narrow the view to only the rendering industry, the same conclusion is reached. The current state of the research engine leaves the industry in a dangerous position for the future. FPRF has made necessary adjustments in intent, direction, and management. Without adequate investment, these may be viewed simply as “narrowly focused piecemeal adjustments.”

Every renderer should consider adding strength to the effort by investing funds and becoming involved to keep FPRF strong and headed in the right direction.

June 2012 RENDER | back