Funding Research and a Plan for a New Approach

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

There are various ways the Fats and Proteins Research Foundation (FPRF) has solicited, funded, and executed research over its 54-year history. Now a new approach to fund pet food research, a “diffuse model,” is being considered that will employ the best attributes from the different ways FPRF has engaged with researchers in the recent past: competitive grants from a pool of applicants from wide distribution of a general request for proposal (RFP), targeted negotiated projects, and a dedicated center with steady funding.

The goal of FPRF-funded research is to advance the science, technology, and utilization of rendered products in the global market, add value, and enhance sustainability of the practices used to convert meat by-products into beneficial commodities. The sustainability of modern meat animal production depends on converting the associated by-products away from waste into valuable uses. To accomplish this in an increasingly complex and crowded world has become difficult and will require the diligent, thoughtful, and coordinated efforts of stakeholders who have an immediate role and those who may not realize their responsibility in the current era. To meet these demands will require vision, financial support, and ingenuity.

The current challenge is that rendered products are not considered “sexy,” not that they ever were. Yet, society often fails to recognize that something has intrinsic value when its full potential or benefit is not fully understood. An example is the very simple and base element that makes modern technology function – silicon, the same sand found at the beach, something most people take for granted as one of the most insignificant compounds on earth. However, in the right hands, this compound has changed the very world upon which we work, play, and even write a document, giving birth to the computer technology explosion. The by-products from the modern meat industry, similarly ignored, contain assimilated minerals, hydrocarbons of more value than the most prized gusher in the panhandle, and DNA base pairs from the most complex communication system ever devised on earth (the genetic code).

In the next decade, proteins will be the most divisive and rare of commodities to the aquaculture, pet, livestock, and poultry feed world. As consumers strive for more elite differentiation on the one end of the spectrum, others will be struggling to find a sufficient supply for subsistence. The rendering industry is truly coming to a crossroads and clever ideas will be in high demand.

FPRF has used several different ways to engage the research community and obtain research projects for the benefit of the rendering industry. These include “at-large” proposals in response to a broad RFP; targeted, negotiated projects from a selected researcher audience; a research center dedicated at a single university; and combinations of the above. Important areas of research for the rendering industry include food safety, animal nutrition, sustainability, novel technologies, and pet food functionality.

The At-large Method
FPRF has a long successful history of soliciting research proposals from universities across the United States (US) and Canada that have produced useful research results in animal nutrition, food safety, product quality, and so on. Gradual changes in the land grant university system, along with shifts of resources toward molecular technologies, has reduced the number of scientists familiar with traditional animal science all while federal funding for such research has declined. One result is fewer submissions in response to FPRF’s RFP as well as receiving proposals in areas far from FPRF’s scope of research or with little recognition of the rendering industry’s realities. This means FPRF must become more aggressive at seeking out scientists who can accomplish cutting-edge rendering research and FPRF members must become more engaged with these scientists to articulate specific needs and problems in rendering to steer the funded research. In some areas, more may be needed than the traditional at-large RFP that depends on researchers to understand the rendering industry.

The Center Method
About 11 years ago, FPRF partnered with Clemson University to create the Animal Co-Products Research and Education Center (ACREC) to meet changing research needs with the centered approach. ACREC gives FPRF the ability to focus research and provide sustainable funding in areas of inquiry important to renderers while developing a cadre of researchers familiar with rendering. This endeavor has produced useful research results in food safety, product quality, new uses, and new technologies. Yet this effort has not evolved the breadth to address all research areas important to rendering today.

Clemson lacks a significant infrastructure or number of faculty that understand the industry enough to bring well-designed projects to bear on the entire range of rendering projects needed. The funding of ACREC has not been at a high enough level to build infrastructure such as a pilot rendering plant. Once researchers engage with the rendering industry, the level of understanding rises considerably, but this knowledge has not always transferred to other researchers not in the discussions – researchers cycle through the meetings with renderers one at a time. Clemson has done a good job in novel technologies, but that field is the most difficult to effectively transfer new developments to market, though FPRF and Clemson are working to solve that problem.

The Method of Targeted, Negotiated Projects
This method has been used in areas where the rendering industry has well-defined needs, and care was taken to explain these needs in detail to researchers in the design of experiments. A benefit of de-coupling from the typical graduate student project cycle is greater speed, but using student labor keeps costs down. Sometimes, the urgent need for results to meet regulatory or other pressures makes the added cost worthwhile. Research described below in food safety and sustainability show how targeted, negotiated projects can work well.

Food Safety
The safety and reputation of rendered products for animal feed and pet food is the most important pillar on which the industry stands. Increasing regulation and customer scrutiny will require continued work in this area. Such work must be connected with regulatory and market needs, and not be unnecessarily duplicative of work from human food science.

A negotiated research project at ACREC proving that rendering temperatures kill the avian influenza virus helped preserve export markets worth millions of dollars with a peer reviewed journal article in 2012. The most recent efforts in food safety research have been targeted, negotiated projects from a selected researcher audience. Driven by regulatory pressure, FPRF members and staff were able to give researchers focused direction and the quality interactions yielded usable results from an efficient process. Examples are the recent thermal validation studies done at Colorado State University, Texas A&M University, and Texas Tech University chosen for their expertise in meat industry food safety. The results should yield tangible member benefits to comply with regulatory needs for process validation. A follow-up study at Colorado State to explore the problem of Salmonella contamination of rendered fat products in pet food, designed with help from pet food industry scientists, has attracted a partnership in research funding from the pet food industry.

Current targeted efforts in the food safety area are effective and can continue productively, but success depends on FPRF member involvement and interactions with researchers to ensure research needs are well defined and projects are sufficiently focused to meet those needs. The primary goal of this field of research is published scientific data that can be used to advance the knowledge of rendering processes.

Animal Nutrition
Research into rendered products as feed ingredients for livestock and aquaculture has long been the foundation for increased sales and the most long-running theme in FPRF research. Information on digestibility, nutrient density, use in diets, etc. continually evolves, as does competing ingredients, environments, and the genetics of the animals. This is why nutrition research must continue, even if it seems repetitive to the casual observer.

This field has been served well by the open competitive system offered by at-large proposals in response to FPRF’s broad RFP. Examples of success are extensive scientific publications by Hans Stein at the University of Illinois, Dominique Bureau of the University of Guelph-Canada, Jesse Trushenski of Southern Illinois University, and Brian Kerr at the US Department of Agriculture who was also able to make sure the National Research Council publication on swine nutrition contained the latest composition and digestibility data on rendered products.

Current targeted efforts in the animal nutrition area are effective and can continue, but success will depend on enough funding to keep researchers interested. The primary goal of this field of research is published scientific data that can be used to advance the knowledge of rendered products.

This is a very important venture essential to the future of rendering. The industry’s sustainability advantage figures importantly throughout the National Renderers Association’s (NRA’s) new strategic plan to establish economic, social, and environmental sustainability metrics that maintain and enhance their members’ social license to operate. FPRF funded four very important projects at ACREC that are the foundation to begin this effort – a life cycle analysis of producing biodiesel from rendered lipids, a rendering carbon footprint model, a life cycle assessment for rendering operations, and a recent comparison of three alternatives for large-scale processing of animal carcasses and meat by-products.

Clemson’s Dr. Charles Gooding (now retired) responded to industry inquiries and engaged in an interactive process with FPRF members to develop a research strategy that resulted in the very useful carbon footprint calculator for rendering. A follow-up project life cycle analysis and a white paper summarizing comparative environmental impacts of alternatives to rendering have been very useful for the rendering industry. With the industry’s new interest in exploiting “the original recyclers” natural advantages in sustainability and with the work of NRA’s new Sustainability Committee, future efforts may have needs beyond ACREC resources. FPRF may need to look to additional universities for future work while recognizing excellent past work by ACREC.

The primary goal of this field of research is published scientific data that can be used to increase the recognition of rendering as essential to the sustainability of the food system and knowledge that will help rendering plants improve their own sustainability.

Novel Technologies
Non-feed uses for rendered products continue to be an important back-up plan and application of new technologies to rendering can improve efficiencies in the future. ACREC’s ability to introduce unfamiliar scientists to the industry’s research needs has resulted in many exciting new applications. The development of novel technologies to improve the processes and products of rendering has been a genuine success of ACREC. Examples would be a natural antioxidant derived from animal blood, nanotechnology to fight odors, ultrafiltration to clean wastewater, and techniques to increase fat extraction. Several other projects now underway show great potential. This dedicated center at a single campus has yielded multidisciplinary approaches particularly well suited to developing novel technologies.

Drawbacks of the center method include a “silo effect,” meaning that the productive interactions among industry members and researchers are happening at that single university, even with single researchers, in the way the program has been administered. While this can be a great benefit to that researcher and ACREC, it would be productive to leverage the education and interaction provided by renderers to a broader research audience.

Another drawback not necessarily of the center but of the nature of work in novel technologies is that very often this research results in patented processes, special knowledge that should be protected, or other intellectual property considerations that complicate publication, publicity, and communications as well as bringing inventions to market. FPRF and ACREC are working hard to find a solution to this problem but most researchers are not responsible for or interested in developing a start-up business to market inventions. In addition, established marketers and companies are reluctant to pay for inventions only proven in a lab. One notable exception has been the antioxidant developed by Drs. Vladimir Reukov and Alexey Vertegel who have a start-up company and have attracted significant outside capital to take the invention to market. Some other projects are near or at the patent stage, or on the shelf awaiting markets with no clear plan to get there.

Pet Food Functionality – an Opportunity for a New Approach
The goal of this proposal is to improve efforts from the status quo and start to shift thinking to methods that focus broad resources to critical areas. The same method cannot be used to address every problem and get the best results. Just because a hammer worked in the past does not mean that all rendering issues in the future will be nails. New approaches, new attempts, new directions, and simultaneous efforts will move the rendering industry quicker to meet the most trying issues of its time in the immediate (e.g., food safety and sustainability), and longer term (i.e., protein shortages). Following are an evaluation of current methods and a few ideas to explore a new approach.

While the areas of food safety and animal nutrition are very important to the use of rendered products in pet food, the area of pet food functionality deserves its own research emphasis area because of the fast-growing pet food market and value-added opportunities for rendered products. This is a high-value category that can introduce rendering to the world in an important emotional manner. So far, the industry has failed to connect with the pet food customer in this category. In the campaign to win the hearts and minds of pet owners, renderers are losing badly. How often is the phrase “no by-products” heard in pet food advertising? Yet, that presents an opportunity to share news of what values rendered products supply to the typical and even exceptional pet.

Further, areas must be explored that include topics like control of oxidation, extending shelf life, new ingredients extracted from by-products, new consumer-friendly ingredient definitions, ingredients with health benefits, among many others. These are important areas for the future of the use of rendered products in pet food. Plus, selected food safety and nutrition projects specific to pet food could also originate from this area. Such a program could benefit the rendering industry by bringing rendering, pet food, and scientific interests together to solve problems in pet food manufacturing and foster innovation and create value.

New Proposal for Pet Food Research: A Diffuse Model
The concept being proposed is to allow one university to function in a spoke-and-wheel model to help coordinate and collaborate with other researchers on topics germane to pet food, ingredients, and shelf-life issues important to the rendering industry. They would do so in a manner that brings a cross-section of researchers to the table for exchanging of ideas, conducts multi-site research projects that leverage the best of each group’s capabilities, and engages rendering industry partners to bring about the most cutting-edge ideas and information. Engaging several universities rather than just one, along with increased pet food industry and rendering participation, would yield even better results.

While several universities would be interested in developing a pet food center with steady funding from FPRF, there are some drawbacks to the center concept (as described above) that would indicate a more open method may be beneficial. The hosting university should have the demonstrated ability to host workshops, strategy meetings, and multi-industry partnerships in research while FPRF would also include top pet food researchers from other universities with pet food programs in Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and any others that are interested. The program should be beneficial to all parties and open to researchers nationwide. Training students to use rendered products in pet food and exposing wider industry audiences via workshops would benefit rendering long term.

Current and past efforts in the pet food functionality area have been similar to at-large proposals in response to a broad RFP and would be improved by a more interactive program with involvement from FPRF members as well as pet food companies. Drawing lessons from the successful interactions at ACREC, a collective problem-solving program could replace the current classic RFP model for this area of research. The notion is that as a group of scientists is presented with a problem, they will rally to the challenge and create unprecedented solutions. This could be a much more effective model than flailing away hoping to guess what the potential sponsors might find intriguing.

Success of such a new approach for pet food research will depend on continued funding and support. The university base for this program should have a faculty familiar with and supportive of the rendering industry. The primary goal of this field of research is published scientific data that can increase the use of rendered products in pet food, but it is conceivable that patented processes could also be a result of work there. Patents and ownership of intellectual property rights add a level of complexity to research funding and challenges in bringing inventions to market that neither universities nor FPRF have yet solved.

A number of past projects funded by FPRF have been attractive for co-funding from partners such as the Poultry Protein and Fat Council. That interest is expected to continue and there will be discussions with the Pet Food Institute about doing additional partnership research. Well-designed projects in pet food could also attract new FPRF members and co-funding opportunities. Universities will compete for this program as it would enhance their reputation and help attract competitive federal research funds and money from other sources. This has started to occur with regularity at ACREC.

Ingredients for Better Research
If FPRF can engage more scientists directly in the process of designing and executing project proposals and experiments, more productive research should result. Renderers directly engaged in articulating rendering problems and needs in discussions with researchers should result in more accurately defined research targets. Tighter, more specific RFPs would save time and effort on both the granting and grant-seeking sides. Engaging more scientists in critical reviews of projects before funding would help FPRF avoid reinventing the wheel or poor research design.

Keeping Researchers Interested
The main interest from researchers is funding to keep their labs operating and graduate students productively engaged. Most agricultural programs have seen federal funding and state support shrink. Other incentives to engage researchers and convince their administrators that working with FPRF is productive could be employed at low cost. The FPRF Innovation Award (now named the Dr. Fred Bisplinghoff FPRF Innovation Award) established last year could be a more prestigious award with wider recognition. Workshops or rendering-themed scientific symposia with published proceedings could offer an additional publication opportunity for researchers. Travel and speaking stipends could help engage scientists who have knowledge useful for the rendering industry.

How to Increase Funding
The most recent FPRF strategic plan identified better communication of FPRF successes as a key element and continued progress is planned there. In addition to wider exposure of research successes, many potential funders have noted a preference for funding specific projects of interest rather than unspecified broad support of FPRF. The development of more focused, targeted proposals that partners would be interested in co-funding could increase the research budget of FPRF. More member involvement could yield higher interest and more commitment of both time and money. New and prospective member awareness and direct interaction will increase the opportunities to connect and expand membership. It is a secondary goal of this diffuse approach to build awareness among prospective members and to engage more members in the high-value future that rendered products represent.

The FPRF Board of Directors will seek proposals from universities to facilitate and coordinate a spoke-and-wheel model including the best aspects of a center approach and the best aspects of targeted research while being open to projects from additional universities on topics germane to pet food, ingredients, and shelf-life issues important to the rendering industry. FPRF will seek such proposals immediately and start evaluating them in August 2016.

June 2016 RENDER | back