Government rolls $21m into new food laboratory network

The government says it will re-hash existing budgets to provide up to $21 million over five years to set up four centres for food and beverage development at Manukau, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Lincoln near Christchurch.The hubs – called a "food innovation network" by Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee – were first proposed under the previous Labour government in 2004.

The government says it will re-hash existing budgets to provide up to $21 million over five years to set up four centres for food and beverage development at Manukau, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Lincoln near Christchurch.

The hubs – called a "food innovation network" by Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee – were first proposed under the previous Labour government in 2004.

By providing the infrastructure such as laboratories and high-tech equipment that companies needed to develop new food and beverage ingredients and consumer products, the hubs could speed up development of a high-value food export industry, Mr Brownlee said.

The food and beverage sector was responsible for more than half of export earnings, and provided jobs for a fifth of the working population.

The processed foods sector had shown strong compound annual growth of 18∞ over the past decade and now accounted for $2.1 billion of exports.

"This has potential to at least double in the next few years," Mr Brownlee told NZPA.

The strategy of requiring state science companies seeking taxpayer funding to line up private-sector partners to transfer new research into the wider economy had been a "great theory" but had not been completely successful.

The hubs would be much more basic.

"We could provide various grants here and there, but what is really required is access to very expensive capital equipment," Mr Brownlee said.

"Small- and medium-sized companies need access to facilities that allow them to develop, test and prove new products."

Each hub will have a different focus, chosen according to the expertise in nearby universities, and the kind of foods produced in those regions.

In Canterbury, where there was a considerable cropping industry, the Lincoln hub will focus on plant-based ingredient and consumer food products.

Manukau will focus on processed foods, and the Waikato hub will work on meat-based products and dairy ingredients.

Palmerston North, which already has a cluster of food technology research around sites such as Massey University and Fonterra's dairy research, will build on its strengths in food research and training food technologists to strengthen connections between research and the industry.

Mr Brownlee said the hubs would not take work away from state science companies such as Plant and Food, because he saw them doing more science for general use, with proprietary products being developed in the hubs.

He expected that the perennial shortage of food technologists could be countered by some companies bringing in their own technical staff. At the same time the hubs would build capacity which would attract more university student to train for such work.

Similar open-access facilities to enable product development and testing existed in most other developed nations.

The first of the four regional hubs will be operational later this year or early next year, with the others phased in over the next two or three years, depending on finding and appointing key staff.