This is the piece of news I hoped I would not have to write here aboutâ€¦
According to the Canberra Times (â€œCash-starved CSIRO cuts 50 jobs, shuts food plantâ€ by Rosslyn Beeby, 1/08/08), the Food Science Australia site at North Ryde is being downsized to the point of practically disappearing.
NOTE: Since I wrote this, FSA has confirmed these news. See: “FSA research capability changes” at http://www.foodscience.csiro.au/news.htm#06-08-08.
This is very sad news. Staff losses are indeed painful, but the loss of the historic CSIRO food division in NSW also comes as a shock. The development of fundamental science in the areas of refrigerated transport and storage, food canning and packaging made history in the Australian food manufacturing industry, particularly in the 1960â€™s.
I donâ€™t think I am the most appropriate person to write about the historic meaning of the â€œCSIRO Food Divisionâ€, now Food Science Australia (FSA), a joint venture of CSIRO and the Victorian Government. After all, I arrived in 2001 and most of this history was already written. I had a role in the modern history of the refrigerated storage and transport team at FSA, as I was there since we moved to the new North Ryde premises, just crossing the road from 16 Julius Avenue to 11 Julius Avenue, carrying our lab books and our chairs and computers in trolleys (we didnâ€™t have laptops yet). This was (and people can correct me if I am wrong) in July 2002. Six years later, staff are to move again, either to other CSIRO divisions, to Werribee (the most robust FSA site at the moment), to retirement or to seek for new employment in universities or other government research organisations. The differences are that in 2002 we moved into the new premises with a spirit of renewal and excitement. In 2008, staff will move out of 11 Julius Avenue feeling at a loss at how, in the wake of a global food crisis and challenging conditions for the Australian food growers, manufacturers and retailers, CSIRO has decided to make up for the $64 million budget shortage cutting food research.
In this post, I want to focus on the capabilities that will be lost to the Australian food industry with the disappearance of the North Ryde facilities:
Â· At the time of my own departure from Food Science Australia (November last year), the North Ryde site had 104 scientific and technical staff working in areas such as food microbiology, packaging, storage and transport, analytical chemistry, ingredient functionality and sensory and consumer science, among others.
Â· The site has several laboratories for instrumentation work, analytical chemistry experiments and microbiology laboratories.
Â· There is a sophisticated pilot plant, with an automated extrusion plant and a high-pressure processing facility.
Â· There are several cold stores for experimental work in frozen and chilled products.
Â· There are 2 reefer containers, used for testing of novel ways to decrease the impact of shipping on product quality.
Â· There is a range of specialized equipment for temperature, air velocity and humidity in refrigerated transport and storage equipment. I am willing to bet that Food Science Australia-NR has the largest collection of temperature sensors in operational conditions in Australasia.
Â· Several systems that measure food texture and equipment used to characterize packaging materials is hosted in North Ryde, as well as specialized chambers to conduct food shelf-life studies.
Â· And of course, the loss of engagement with regulatory bodies such as FSANZ, Standards Australia, relationships with universities (Australian and overseas-based) and with many industry associations. Personally, the infrastructure that I see as the greatest loss to Australia is the Container Test Facility (CTF).
The CTF was designed specifically for simulating environmental conditions during sea, air and road transport virtually anywhere in the world. Researchers at FSA developed software to estimate the weather expected during shipments at any time of the year, for almost any voyage. Temperature, humidity and solar radiation profiles can be simulated in the test chamber, which is large enough to house a single 12 m (40â€™) container or two 6 m (20â€™) containers. Temperatures can be controlled between -10 oC and +50 oC and varied dynamically. The facility can also provide relative humidifies between 40% and 95%.
I believe that these capabilities and the size of the CTF make this facility unique in Australasia. The type of work that we could pursue was also of high scientific caliber, particularly in the study of the effect of transport conditions on food quality:
Â· Mapping of environmental conditions during food shipping. The substantial catalogue of sensors for measurement of temperature, humidity, condensation, air velocity and gas composition available allowed researchers to place these in grid patterns around the cargo of a refrigerated container. The CTF would simulate the temperature, humidity and radiation conditions for particular voyages. At the end of the measurement period, sensor data was downloaded to a computer and analysed. With this data, in-house developed software was used to generate multiple three-dimensional colour charts and graphs that visually showed temperature profiles, enabling identification of specific problem areas (e.g. â€œhotâ€ spots, concentration of humidity in specific areas of the container). The availability of quality measurement equipment also allowed correlation of food quality losses with temperature variability in the cargo space.
Â· Thermal testing of refrigerated trucks and containers. Successful cold chain management is highly dependent on the thermal performance of the refrigerated vehicles used during distribution. For insulated and refrigerated freight containers used for sea, rail and road transport throughout the world, compliance with the ISO standard 1496-2 (Specifications and testing - Thermal Containers) must be attained. In Australia, the AS 4982-2003 defines testing specifications and procedures to evaluate the thermal performance of refrigerated road transport equipment. These tests require a strict control of environmental conditions and continuous monitoring of temperature, energy, air pressures and other parameters, which can only be achieved in testing chambers specially designed for this purpose. The CTF was capable of accommodating 45 ft trucks and containers that would not fit in other testing facilities. Testing services included: heat leakage (K-value) tests, refrigeration capacity, air refresh volumes, air tightness tests, air velocity at the evaporatorâ€™s delivery and return and thermographic surveys that help detecting sources of heat loss (thermal bridges).
Work developed on the CTF experiments inspired no less than 30 scientific publications in the past 5 years and many confidential reports delivered to food exporters, transport manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, logistics providers and other supply chain players.
A suite of in-house developed software that has been described in several scientific publications (and the accompanying IP) will be also lost, as most of the software developed was for work specifically developed in the CTF.