Q&A: David Beck helps us sift through CIFT
Give us the 30-second rundown on what CIFT does.
We're the Edison Technology Center that's responsible for technology-based economic development within food processing and agriculture and agribusiness, and we tend to define that rather loosely.
You span a lot of different areas, from alternative energy, to food safety, to sustainability to food security and local foods. Where do you seem to be spending most of your energy these days?
Well, it varies. I would say recently we're really involved in food safety and food security. I think you can lump local food into that, because that's one of the drivers behind the demand for local food. Energy costs are a huge trend that is really transforming our society. That's also an opportunity for agribusinesses, because we have alternative fuels, or fuels that can be grown from sustainable sources. Plus, it's also one of the factors that also pushes local foods to the forefront. The fact that transportation costs are so high. "Functional foods" are another. The concept is food products that have preventive medical properties. A lot of these substances are found in crops that can be, or are being produced in Ohio, whether it's some of the anti-oxidants that are found in berries, whether it's lycopenes that are found in tomatoes or some of the compounds that are in dairy products.
What are the biggest issues facing the food industry?
There might not be an easy politically correct way to say this, but I really think one of the biggest issues facing the industry is lack of control over how products are priced and marketed. The food industry has really given up control to food retailers. So, the net result of that is too many food products have been turned to commodities. It's difficult to say that we should pay more for our food, but the way I would phrase it is we should get more for our food dollar. Another issue is food safety. We need better technology to detect pathogens and better technology to deal with them.
Are you helping folks with new technology?
I think Ohio has the opportunity to be at the forefront of safe processing technologies. One is ultra-high pressure sterilization, which isn't a new technology, but it's a new commercial technology and a CIFT-member company, Sandridge Foods in Medina is, I believe, the second commercial installation of this technology in the country. Essentially, what ultra-high pressure does is isostatically applies lots of pressure -- 60,000 to 80,000 psi to products, and that pressure disrupts the DNA within pathogenic bacteria and removes their ability to reproduce so food can be made shelf stable and you don't affect the flavor. You can also deactivate spoilage enzymes. We're helping to promote companies and products that might want to use this technology. The other thing that's going on here in Ohio, and this is something we organized with Ohio State University Department of Food Science and Kent State University -- and I believe we have four companies involved too -- is Ohio has one of the few research companies for electron beam sterilization. We've for the last two years been sterilizing things with electron beams up at Kent State. And we're in the process of doing our sensory evaluations, and I really think maybe now the time is right for some consumer education.
You recently sponsored a chocolate showcase that highlighted Ohio candy makers. How do you work with entrepreneurs like that?
We really try to connect people in small businesses up to different markets. Kroger has been a very good partner in that phase of what we do. We have product showcases for our small companies. We have a kitchen incubator that we operate, which is in Haskins -- and we rent time on production equipment for companies that want to come in and produce things for retail sale. One of the things you see with food entrepreneurs is they say "everybody likes this stuff when I make it at home, and I give it to all my relatives and they want more" and there's such a sense of personal identification with products, but you know the food business is a tough one to be in.
It's one thing to make a product, it's another to run a company
Well, that's right. One other thing we do as kind of an adjunct to that whole activity is we have our signature food contest. The idea was we have so many restaurants around Toledo, most of them have a specialty they would like to sell retail, so we had a competition. We focused on restaurants, although we opened it up the second year for anybody -- and the third year as well. We appoint a panel of judges and we ask people to bring in their product concepts as well as samples of their product. For the winners, we do everything for them for free, up to and including filing their process, getting their process authority for them, getting their license. We go all the way up to making them test batches so they can make a presentation to (a retailer). We had a two-way tie the first year and a three-way tie the second, and of those five winners we've had, I think four of the five are on the grocery store shelves at some level. So it's a good way to help promote.
What are some of the things people find surprising about CIFT?
That there's someone that actually does what we do.
Any new projects that excite you?
The two I talked about (nonthermal sterilization) are top of the list. Also in the area of functional foods, we've kicked off several projects. The reason I think they're so interesting is because they are things we can do here in Ohio and we can do them relatively quickly. Those kind of things have typically tended to be the property of big multinational companies, so to have small, independent Ohio companies doing those kids of things really is exciting.