Conference unites business, science sides of food

The Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and expo is “all about industry knowledge and getting to know the industry,” says Marko Hakovirta, director of the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering (AC-PABE), an AUFSI partner.

The Auburn University Food Systems Institute was an exhibitor at the recent show. Held in mid-July, it attracted some 20,000 food science and technology professionals from around the world to McCormick Place in Chicago. Hakovirta and Jean Weese, an Extension specialist and Auburn professor of food science, were part of the AUFSI delegation.

Hakovirta is the inventor of a low-cost packaging material that tells a food retailer or customer when food is spoiling. The packaging paper can even tell the retailer which pathogen—Salmonella, E. Coli or Listeria—has tainted the contents.

The paper changes color to indicate the presence of bacteria, pesticides or the ammonia that meat emits when it starts to spoil. This is accomplished by using inexpensive diatomaceous earth as a platform for nanoparticles that detect contamination.

Hakovirta said he made the trip to Chicago for two reasons—to be educated and to meet people. A full nanotechnology conference was part of the event.

“I got good ideas and new insight into what people are doing,” he said. “ Anytime you get new industries emerging, there is a lot of opportunity, which stimulated a lot of new thoughts about what research can do.”

The expo side was equally valuable, he said.

“You need to know the industry, and you need to know the value chain. Who are the players?” he said.  “Short-term, I got connections—there are four or five leads I will definitely follow up.”

The benefit of attending the conference went far beyond making short-term connections and snaring leads, Hakovirta added. Part of the benefit came from mixing with scientists and businesspeople outside of his own discipline.

“People from different industries see your research in a completely fresh way,” he said. “All the value-chain players don’t necessarily know about opportunities in paper.”

Weese was in agreement about the benefits of traveling to Chicago for the conference, for the same reasons.

“I met corporate people who were Auburn graduates that we didn’t know were out there because not all were food science graduates,” she said. “I reconnected with graduate students and made useful connections with their companies, and I got a lot of ideas that will bring students to the next level.”

The event brought together professionals involved in both the science and the business of food. Exhibitors included book publishers, trade magazines, universities and major companies from around the world.

At their booth, AUFSI staff members talked with attendees about collaborations with Auburn University and about the next edition of Auburn Speaks, a publication of the Office of the Vice President of Research. The 2014 Auburn Speaks will address the topic of “Food.”

AUFSI staff  members also introduced the variety of food-systems training opportunities available through Auburn University and AUFSI’s Virtual Food Systems Training Consortium, which is creating online training for inspectors of FDA-regulated foods. The courses will also be made available to companies and the public.