Forget the fat-free craze. Max Norris likes fats and he likes oils. Not only are they essential to our diets (who hasn’t heard of Omega-3s?), they can be refined into fuel, cosmetics, industrial lubricants, even candles.

Norris, who heads AURI’s fats and oils laboratory in Marshall, works with staff chemists Rose Patzer and Jerry Crawford to make businesses’ and ag groups’ product ideas work.

In the lab, the chemists break animal fat- or vegetable oil-based products down into their components, then examine and improve them. “If you’re trying to simulate a product, Jerry will analyze it and give you targets. Once you’ve developed a product, he tells you what you have — all the details that characterize the ingredients,” Norris says. “If you find it doesn’t work so well, he’ll tweak it.”

Some development work can take years, such as Norris’ involvement with biodiesel. AURI-backed research “started in the early 1990s with a vision we could get where we are today. We have arrived.” Since the state legislature mandated a two-percent biodiesel blend, “the phone has been ringing off the hook. Everyone wants to build a biodiesel plant in their community. … (This) positioned Minnesota to be a leader in this technology.”

Norris hopes a similar long-term effort will pay off for SoyMor, a 500-member grower group that wants to extract high-value ingredients from soybeans. “Within every bushel of soybeans, there’s a possible $16.86 worth of product — oil, meal, fiber, carbohydrates.”

The value goes even higher by “removing gums, commonly called lecithin, and other fat derivatives.” Lecithin can be fractionated into five phosphorous-containing components, including phosphatidyl serine, claimed to improve brain function. “Lecithin components are in the marketplace — but they’re imported and sell for several hundred dollars per kilogram — high end stuff,” Norris says.

The most important asset of any new product venture, even a small one, is “that it differentiate itself in the market,” Norris says. He’s seen soy oil-based handmade soaps “with 25 cents worth of material” sell for $3 apiece.

Some successes catch even AURI staff by surprise. Jill Anderson of Redwood Falls, who started making fragranced soy oil candles for local shops and farmers markets, “now has a business that has moved into the millions with 33 employees,” Norris says.

Crawford and Norris helped Anderson improve her product with hydrogenated oils for increased burn time. They pointed out benefits she could market. “(Soy oil) doesn’t have the sootiness that messes up containers and walls, typical of paraffin-based materials,” Norris says. AURI also sourced equipment so Anderson could upgrade “from pouring one candle at a time.” Within two years Anderson moved from her basement beginnings into a 12,000 square-foot building and is selling candles in 1,000 retail stores.

Why are some projects successful? “I think it’s the people who have something with a market desire. You have to be a little bit different, and people will (pay) more,” Norris says. Mostly, “it’s being in the right place at the right time.”

A meat maker’s dream

AURI’s meat pilot plant can

turn out test products in record time

Leave out the flowers and homemade baskets, and AURI’s meat pilot plant in Marshall might pass for Martha Stewart’s dream kitchen. Just about any meat product can be made here — links, patties, roasts, breaded cutlets and smoked meats.

The facility is available to small processors who want to design and evaluate prototypes before contracting with commercial processors or investing in equipment. Even larger processors, who can’t spare equipment for product trials, seek help from AURI’s meat lab staff.

Manager Darrell Bartholomew, a meat scientist, has helped design countless products over almost a decade at AURI — zesty ethnic sausages, cashew-coated chicken nuggets, rib-shaped dog treats, barbecue ribs and nitrite-free bacon. Assisted by meat technologist Brian Reuter and lab technician Karen Fennern, he helps clients at any development stage, from raw meat to packaged product to taste panels.

Cutting tables, saws, a slicer, patty machine, emulsifier, sausage-making equipment, ham tumblers, a steam-jacketed kettle, smokehouse, breading machine, multi-needle injector, packing equipment, coolers and a freezer fill the 2,000 square-foot facility located on the Southwest State University campus. An adjoining microbial lab is used for environmental monitoring and shelf-life tests. Lab technicians do color and tenderness evaluations and train processors in safe food handling, including the HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program.

“We have processing technologies available that (clients) might not have been aware of, “ Bartholomew says. For example, traditional ham takes about a week to cure; the Marshall plant does it in a day. An injector punctures the meat, then a vacuum tumbler evenly distributes the curing brine through the meat. After seven to 12 hours in the smokehouse, the ham is ready.

Frankfurters are among the most popular products at the lab. The process starts with the circular cutting blades of a large emulsifier. Next, sausage linkers measure and pump the pureed meat into casings. One makes old-fashioned wieners priced after they’re weighed; the other makes hot dogs all the same weight and length — about 500 per minute.

In the smokehouse room, a sausage peeler removes cellulose casings from franks — 200 in 8 to 10 seconds. Products are cooked or dried slowly — up to 800 pounds at a time. “The smokehouse needs constant attention to obtain a desirable surface color and avoid case hardening,” Bartholomew says.

Processors who train in HACCP methods learn how processing mistakes cause contamination. Even when working with a contract processor, a meat business must identify proper cooking temperatures and other critical control points. Processors learn to use equipment such as a bioluminometer, which costs about $3,000 and uses a firefly enzyme to convert ATP energy, found in all living cells, to light. Bartholomew swipes a test swab on equipment or packaged meat surfaces and inserts it into the bioluminometer. In about 11 seconds, he can determine if equipment surfaces are free of microbial or meat and plant residue contamination.

“Overcoming problems and making successful new products,” Bartholomew says, are the most rewarding parts of his job, along with “seeing a client’s product in the marketplace, and seeing the company grow.”