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Contribution To Cheese Industry Earns Major Award

Friday 28 June, 2002

A researcher who has helped turn New Zealand’s cheese industry into a NZ $1.4 billion global success story has received one of the dairy industry’s highest accolades.

Howard Heap of the Fonterra Research Centre (formerly the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute) this month received the DIANZ Distinguished Service Award. He joined the Palmerston North-based research centre in 1968, and currently heads the Starter Group, which produces virtually all the starters used in the New Zealand dairy industry.

Starter cultures - naturally occurring micro-organisms which, when introduced to milk, cause acid production - are a cornerstone of successful cheese manufacture. Yet they are readily infected by bacteriophages (viruses) that can cause acid production to fail, thus ruining the cheese in its earliest stages. Pioneering work by New Zealand Dairy Research Institute scientists in the 1930s identified the importance of using starter cultures that were resistant to attack by bacteriophage.

With the dramatic expansion in the size and throughput of cheese manufacturing plants during the 1960s and 70s, it became increasingly difficult to keep bacteriophage under control. To prevent manufacturing failure and meet customer needs for reliable, uniform product, it was essential for the New Zealand cheese industry to develop and tightly manage a reliable system of starters.

Throughout the 1970s, Howard Heap and his team isolated the starter culture strains with most resistance to phage attack. Eventually, they identified a trio of starters that could be safely used by all factories in New Zealand, day after day, vat after vat. Using only a limited number of starters, all produced under tightly controlled conditions at the Fonterra Research Centre’s starter production unit, has enabled the dairy industry to virtually eliminate bacteriophage contamination, making it the envy of many overseas competitors.

According to the Fonterra Research Centre’s chief executive, Dr Allan Anderson, the value of the starter culture expertise developed under Howard Heap’s leadership cannot be over stated.

“New Zealand is a world leader in starter technology. Our cheese plants are extremely large by world standards, and one of the main reasons we can produce top-quality cheese on such a scale is the superiority of our starter systems. They bring us manufacturing efficiencies and major cost savings, and ensure we can offer customers extremely consistent product. “

The DIANZ award – which follows a 1998 Royal Society Science and Technology Medal – is, says Dr Anderson, fitting recognition for a man whose name has been synonymous with cheesemaking in New Zealand for more than 30 years.

“For years, Howard has personally determined the industry’s starter strategy, and continues to make day-to-day decisions on the selection of starter strains. He visits each cheese plant at least once a year, conducts regular workshops that have become a ‘mecca’ for local cheesemakers, and his opinions are sought by manufacturers and researchers throughout New Zealand and internationally.

“That the New Zealand cheese industry is held in such high regard by global customers and competitors is due in considerable measure to the work of Howard Heap”.


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