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Penn State Berks Growing Food Tech in Greater Reading

Pick an aisle in your neighborhood supermarket and you'll probably find something grown or made in eastern Pennsylvania. Ice cream. Candy bars. Mushrooms.

Food's contribution to this region's economy is astonishing: According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Pennsylvania has more than 1,200 food-processing companies that do $28.1 billion in business each year. Almost 30 percent of these companies are in Berks County or the six counties bordering it.

And considering the public's increasing interest in healthy food and concern about obesity and food-borne illness, these food companies will need to innovate and expand their markets to be competitive in the future.

That, plus the county's central location amongst Pennsylvania's source of all things edible, is the main reason Penn State University's Berks campus, just north of Reading, is developing a center to help local food companies with research and development. The college's partners include the Berks County Industrial Development Authority and a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Montgomery County.

Dr. Hassan Gourama, a Penn State-Berks food scientist working on the project, says regional food processors must capitalize on what needs they can fill to improve their products and grow their companies.

"We have to focus on production of healthy food, organic food, what we call nutraceuticals, which are food products with a health benefit," Gourama says. "If the companies can find their own niche to focus on, I think that would be great for the economy of this area and the surrounding counties."

One company discussing the venture with Penn State is Sterman Masser, a family-run potato farming and packing operation in the valleys of western Schuylkill County. The firm and its partners supply several grocery stores and household names like Costco Wholesale and Green Giant. CEO Keith Masser also leads Keystone Potato Products, a growers' co-op whose catalog includes potato flakes and mostly-cooked French fries. 

Julie Masser Ballay, Sterman Masser's VP and chief technical officer, says that while the company's been successful, it's now focusing more on looking into the future.

"We've gotten very large very quickly," Ballay says. "Small businesses are running on that day-to-day operation, and we have to start thinking like a big company."

Sterman Masser has discussed utilizing Penn State research on developing potatoes with an indefinite shelf life when refrigerated. The company's next step would be finding markets for these potatoes and figuring out how to produce them for distribution.

Problem is, building equipment to test these immortal potatoes would cost a lot of money Sterman Masser doesn't have. The 180-person company also lacks a research and development department. Those tasks fall to Ballay's brother, VP of sales and marketing David Masser.

Gourama notes that many regional food processors lack research departments. Meanwhile, colleges and government laboratories constantly experiment on improving food and the way it's processed and packaged.

"Knowledge at the university level isn't being commercialized, and that knowledge isn't going to the people who need it," says Tom McKeon, executive director of the industrial development authority.

The idea behind the Penn State facility is to connect researchers with those in the business of producing food, along with identifying opportunities to fund research.  It reflects the idea of developing Berks as a center for food processing, which has circulated for years. It doesn't have a name yet and largely remains a concept.

Plans are to hire a consultant to work with food processors and figure out exactly what resources the companies need to grow their businesses. The consultant would then find out where--and whether--these resources are being developed. After gathering all this information organizers will decide how the center should be set up and what equipment and staff it needs.

Organizers have applied for a $50,000 state grant, to be matched by the industrial development authority, which would mostly go to the consultant. Walt Fullam, director of continuing education at Penn State Berks, hopes work can begin this summer.

Gourama foresees the center utilizing the research capabilities of scientists and graduate students at colleges in and near Pennsylvania. The industrial development authority is seeking money to buy and develop a 150-acre parcel, near Penn State-Berks and the Reading Regional Airport, which McKeon says could be the center's base.

Ballay of Sterman Masser would love for the center to have food scientists and packaging engineers companies like hers could work with. Perhaps it could develop a machine to test the production of potatoes with a long shelf life in the refrigerator, and that technology could be applied to other kinds of food.

"If this was to be installed at the center, different companies could share time at it," Ballay says.

Berks Packing Co., a 130-employee meat-processing firm in Reading, works constantly to keep up with customer demands for convenient, healthy, safe food. The family-run firm processes meat into products like hot dogs, hams and deli meats that end up at places like grocery stores, schools, hospitals and stadiums, generally within 150 miles of Reading.

Its new product development group gets together every other week to discuss new offerings such as lower-sodium or pre-sliced meats, says Jim Boylan, VP of marketing. When customers request a new product or Berks decides to develop one based on trends in the marketplace, Boylan says representatives from departments such as quality control, product development, retail and food service are involved in figuring out how to make, package and sell it.

Launching a new product takes between two and six months, Boylan says. And one handicap is that whenever Berks lacks equipment dedicated to testing. Making a 200- or 300-pound test sample is made, interferes with everyday production. He says the Penn State center could build meat-processing equipment designed for small orders, potentially cutting the time it takes to introduce a new product since companies wouldn't have to use their own equipment for testing.

The main benefit he sees is the potential for collaboration among companies producing different types of food. Maybe a pretzel bakery could learn from Berks Packing's management or manufacturing practices, or the other way around, for example.

"Our competition could benefit," Boylan says. "Overall, I want what's good for the industry. We're all in this together."

Penn State's proposal isn't a new idea. Boylan says Penn State should study the Center for Advanced Food Technology, a facility at New Jersey's Rutgers University that focuses its research on areas like food safety and nanotechnology. Berks Packing has provided supplies for a Rutgers project to develop new packaging for military meals.

Another model Berks' organizers have looked at is the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which works with academic researchers and biotechnology firms statewide to fill "gaps in the innovation pipeline," as spokeswoman Robin Deacle phrases it. The center's been successful at connecting different sectors to foster growth, she says.

"Government, academia and industry can all come together and talk to each other," Deacle says.

Considering all the food grown and produced in and around Berks, Boylan says Penn State's idea would be huge asset here.

"I think it's a great opportunity to vitalize, to revitalize, the industry," he says.


Rebecca VanderMeulen is a freelance journalist based near Downingtown. She doesn't carry much cash, but if she did, she'd spend way too much of it at farmer's markets and roadside produce stands. Send feedback here.

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Photos:

From left, Penn State-Berks director of continuing education Walt Fullam; Penn State-Berks food scientist Dr. Hassan Gourama; and Berks County Industrial Development Authority executive director Tom McKeon gather at Gourama's lab.

Gourama at his lab on campus.

Fullam visits Gourama's lab.

McKeon believes commercializing food technology needs more flavor.

Exterior view of the Sterman Masser Patato Farm's office/plant.

Sterman Masser Patato Farm's IT officer Julie Msser Ballay talks about her company's innovations.

All Photographs by Brad Bower


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