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Innovation, opportunity key to growth for ag, food and science

WILLMAR -- A soaring grain market that makes it expensive to feed livestock, consumer demand for safe, tasty food that's easy to prepare and a changing global market are just some of the challenges that face companies like Jennie-O Turkey Store.

But along with those challenges there are opportunities for innovation, said Glenn Leitch, president of Jennie-O Turkey Store and group vice president of Jennie-O parent company Hormel Foods. Leitch was one of the speakers Wednesday at the second annual animal science conference and venture forum at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

The day-long conference featured a variety of speakers who addressed industry trends and brought together investors and animal science companies seeking funding.

Leitch said a "vision for innovation" has been a key factor for both Hormel and Jennie-O as they work to meet market demands.

This is the 75th anniversary of the canned meat Spam and sales are at a record high because it "continues to reinvent itself," Leitch said.

"At the end of the day we innovate for the consumer," said Leitch, touting some of the company's new items, like turkey bacon and frozen turkey burgers.

Leitch said an aging population and a trend for more people living alone will present new opportunities to create new products to meet consumer demands. He said by 2050 the majority of Americans will have an ethnic background.

"We have to make sure we're marketing products to that group," he said, adding that sometimes success is a combination of innovation and "dumb luck."

It may take more than luck, however, to meet the world's food demands, which he said will double in the next 50 years. He said 70 percent of that food supply will have to come from new or existing technology.

Leitch's talk was followed by a panel discussion with four ag science industry representatives who spoke about barriers and opportunities for innovation, including the availability or shortage of qualified employees, current regulation and potential restrictions.

Jim Sandstrom, general manager of Epitopix, which develops animal vaccines on the MinnWest Technology Campus, said stringent oversight and requirements by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have become an expensive and time-consuming burden.

In 1987 he said it took two years for the company to get a vaccine licensed. Their latest animal vaccine took nine years and resulted in only a partial license. "It's a tremendous barrier against innovation," said Sandstrom.

Anastasios Tsinas, from the Technological Educational Institute of Epirus in Greece, warned that the ban on using antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed in European countries may eventually come to the United States and that the industry needs to be prepared.

Drew Ryder, president of Feedlogic in Willmar, said the public's perception that restricting antibiotics in animal feed would be a good thing does not mesh with science.

Tsinas acknowledged the European ban was based on "politics" and not science.

Dave Theis, president of Midwest Research Swine of Glencoe, said he doesn't want to see a ban but said the public needs to be aware that antibiotics are used "judiciously" to keep an animal healthy, which he said results in better food.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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