What Jody Horner, Cargill Meat Solution’s president, and other Cargill executives considered a dream in 2009 has become a $14.7 million, 75,000-sq.-ft. reality with the unveiling of the new Cargill Innovation Center July 15.

Contained within the two-story center situated on a half-city block in downtown Wichita, Kan., are retail and foodservice presentation rooms; a test and development kitchen for retail and foodservice; a photo studio; an 11,000-sq.-ft., USDA-inspected pilot production plant; a tenderness and texture lab; a smokehouse room; a shelf-life testing room; a seasoning blends and ingredients room; a general microbiology lab; a chemistry lab; a BSL-2 food-safety lab featuring a pathogen pilot plant and pathogen lab; and a refrigerated dock to handle raw materials and finished product, among other things.

The new facility replaces an older center located inside a 210,000-sq.-ft. building several miles away that was once a meat processing plant. Acquired by Cargill in 1978 when it entered the meat business, this property was recently sold to a non-meat business, Midwest Scrap Management Inc. of St. Joseph, Mo.

Cargill broke ground at its new center on June 28, 2010. The new center is 25 percent larger than similar operations in its previous facility. To ensure the new facility was totally functional, the center’s management and employees assisted in designing the center.

“Part of making work easier and safer was designing this center with as good of a flow as possible,” says Scott Eilert, Ph.D., vice president of R&D and head of the new center. “A lot of effort went into its design. It’s also flexible and expandable. You’re inside a dream come true for many of us.”

The new center is located one block from the headquarters of several leading Cargill businesses the center supports. These businesses include the second-largest beef processor, third-largest turkey processor and fourth-largest pork processor in the US. It also supports a Cargill business that serves the foodservice industry, another that distributes food to small retailers, one that’s responsible for much of the ground beef in the US and another that produces case-ready products for retail customers. The center will also work closely with other Cargill businesses, including its salt, egg, dressings, sauces, oils and food ingredients groups.

Capabilities and services

Capabilities and services provided at the new center include product/process development; cooking/preparation instructions; nutritional profiling; food safety/HACCP assistance; retail and foodservice simulation; pilot production process and equipment testing; consumer sensory research; recipe/menu development; shelf-life testing; tenderness/textural analysis; product labeling; microbiological and chemical; analysis; regulatory agency assistance; packaging process testing; and ingredient and seasoning development and testing.

“We have been working here already for about two weeks.” Eilert said during a July 14 media tour. “Our pathogen room isn’t quite up and running yet. Our smokehouses aren’t done. But after next week, we should be moving full-speed ahead.”

The Cargill Innovation Center supports both Cargill and customer businesses. “Our challenge is the center’s efforts must be broader than Cargill’s animal protein businesses,” Eilert says. “How we succeed with customers is going to be about leveraging the dollars, insights and capabilities outside the four walls of these businesses…linking with our global poultry businesses, animal nutrition businesses, food ingredient business and salt business.”

The center is focused on helping customers grow their business. That growth can come from new products, new services, supply-chain solutions, risk-management solutions or improving existing products. It is the newest structure built in an ongoing global commitment to innovation. In June, Cargill opened a new innovation center in Brazil – similar facilities are located in Belgium; Minneapolis and Elk River, Minn.; China; Eddyville, Iowa; Ft. Collins, Colo.; and Thailand.

Genesis of the center

Cargill’s previous R&D and product development center in Wichita served the company well, Eilert says. But several years ago, Cargill executives asked themselves if it was worth continuing to invest capital to improve the aging facility. Building a new center was the right solution.

“Our main Wichita Cargill corporate office is a block away from our new Cargill Innovation Center,” Eilert says. “From the standpoint of international productivity, we felt it was extremely important to be located close to our other colleagues.

“We also wanted to create a destination for our customers; make it very functional so they would want to come here and work,” he adds. “Third, we wanted to expand some of our capabilities. Cargill was committed to Wichita and to innovation and agreed building the new center was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

Center highlights

The Retail Presentation Room can handle a variety of retail applications customers want, Eilert says. It consists of a fresh meat counter for cutting demos, a convenience store area, a deli counter and a home kitchen area.

“If we need to bring a group of consumers in here, whether it be for a focus group or to use in studies, we can do that now,” Eilert says.

The Foodservice Presentation Room is designed for presenting new concepts or doing work sessions with foodservice customers. “Almost all of our equipment is on wheels [throughout the center],” Eilert says. “We’ll continue to move in and out an array of different equipment. If a customer has a certain grill or a certain convection oven we need to use, we source that equipment and roll that in.”

The test kitchen features much flexibility. “We can move equipment around and configure it as needed to serve both retail and foodservice presentation rooms,” Eilert says. “Yesterday, we had several scientists working on a couple different processes back here. It’s a highly functional and versatile space.”

Chef Chad Schafer, culinary manager and chef at the center who joined the company 16 months ago, led the design of this area. “We tried to make it more efficient, decrease steps to increase functionality,” he says. “We can have 30-35 people working here in the kitchen.”

An adjacent photo studio serves both an internal and customer purpose. “When we do a work session with a customer and we have to take photos of the finished products, we take the product from the kitchen, take photos back here and our customers walk away at the end of the day with all the work we did captured on a CD,” Eilert says.

The 11,000-sq.-ft., brightly lit pilot production plant boasts an open design for flexibility. “Our previous pilot plant had many small rooms,” Eilert says. “Now, if we need to bring in a full-scale production line to do early prototype testing, we can do it.

“Windows offer views into the various rooms along our tour hall,” he adds. “If people need to see our capabilities, they can do so in a very convenient fashion. They can see our labs and pilot plant at work through windows – and don’t have to suit up and go into the various rooms unless necessary.”

Team members in the tenderness and texture lab were doing shear analysis testing for products in Cargill’s Guaranteed Tender and Verified Tender programs during the tour. Allison Turner and James Mendoza , analytical lab technicians, sliced sampled product and put it on the texture analyzer to measure shear force. “We put this area right off the pilot plant because we’ll prep the samples in the pilot plant, utilize that space and then it’s an easy flow into this facility,” Eilert says.

The center was in the final stages of installing smokehouses during the tour. “We designed it the same way we designed our large production facilities,” Eilert says. “The raw side is separated from the ready-to-eat side – different colored floors, entrances for each region and air supplies. We have four single-prep smokehouses plus capabilities for continuous cooking and processing.”

Shelf-life testing is done using six refrigerated cases that can be set at different temperatures and under different lighting. “This area is focused on confirming and validating shelf-life of a product,” Eilert says. “This area features a lot of flexibility, which is critical due to our diverse customer base.”

Formulation work for designing seasoning blends for Cargill or its customers is done in the seasoning blends and ingredients room where all stocks of base ingredients and specialty ingredients are stored.

Work in the general microbiology lab next to the shelf-life cooler focuses on studying the spoilage characteristics of products – whether team members are creating a new product or changing an existing product.

The total analytical area contains 10 technicians in chemistry and microbiology labs. The micro lab staff totals seven people. About 1,500 technology people are employed at Cargill worldwide.

The chemistry lab does nutrition testing, methods development around chemical analysis and cost analysis. Lab workers determine the initial nutrient composition for Cargill and customer products and attempt to introduce new testing methodologies. “For example, we are working hard to increase the utilization of Near Infrared Spectroscopy in our operational laboratories in order to measure product composition and quality,” Eilert says. “We will do such work here and scale it to our larger plants.”

The new BSL-2 food safety lab is more than twice the size of the former lab. “We continue to innovate in the area of food safety and reducing food-safety risks so we will do a variety of testing in different methods development work here,” Eilert says. “We’ll do pathogen testing, researching what makes foodborne bacteria [pathogens] multiply, how they behave under different conditions, what mitigates them, etc.”

A pathogen pilot plant and pathogen lab are located here. “We can bring in small grinders, small slicers and so forth and do inoculated studies to look at different intervention methods,” Eilert says. “We felt it was really important to expand our capabilities in this area. We can refrigerate this area and make it like a production facility – whether we’re spearheading intervention work or doing heat pasteurization, etc., we can do that here, too. This is a clean-room environment with restricted access.”

Cubicles are located near windows to get the benefit of natural light for most of the center’s scientists, labeling and regulatory staff. Conference and other rooms are located in the area where team members can break away to focus on a project.

Open house

During the July 15 grand opening for invited guests and local dignitaries, a number of Cargill and local officials offered congratulations and presentations including CMS President Horner; Eilert; Cargill CFO Sergio Rial; Chris Mallett, corporate vice president of R&D; Tony Simpson, BioEnergy Director, Heartland BioVentures, Kansas Bioscience Authority; Dale Rodman, who worked for Cargill for 37 years and came out of retirement to become Secretary of Agriculture, State of Kansas; Commissioner Tim Norton, Second District, Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners; and Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.

Although not built specifically for meat, the Cargill Innovation Center “is the crown jewel of meat-oriented food innovation centers found in the US,” Eilert says. “It is where whatever is next in the way of food innovation is created and as such we eagerly look forward to our customers visiting Wichita to experience this very special place we built to serve them better,” he says.

Plans to expand the new innovation center have already been drawn up and will be ready to execute when the time is right. Eilert is optimistic about the future of the new Cargill Innovation Center, thanks largely to its talented team. “When you combine the 70 people at the Cargill Innovation Center with the network of people they’re connected to…I would hold all of these people across Cargill as the finest and most innovative people in the world,” he concludes.