Skonberg has been doing crustacean by-products research since 1998. Her crab experiments are the latest in a long line of by-products research at UMaine where, in the last three decades alone, food scientists have explored potential uses for Maine-based by-products such as potato peels, salmon and lobster mince, and unripe (red and green) blueberries. The goal of the department’s by-products research is to probe areas that might be of benefit to industries and specialty food producers that play a significant role in the state’s economy.
“We’re creating opportunities for businesses to make profits on something that may have been a waste disposal issue,” says Mary Ellen Camire, a UMaine professor of food science and human nutrition, and a fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists. “We’re not getting things ready to be sold in stores. We develop concepts, then it’s up to the industry to take the next steps.”
But finding a business willing to make a significant financial commitment to implement one of the university’s food by-products concepts can be difficult, especially in current economic times when profitability is more critical than ever.
“Trying to get things picked up by industry is always a challenge,” Camire says. “The trick is, if a company wants to use a by-product concept, it has to make economic sense for them.”
The economics of by-products research also extends to supply and demand. Take the department’s research on potato peels in conjunction with the McCain Foods potato facility in Easton, Maine. More than two decades ago, peels from Aroostook County’s cash crop were used as cattle feed before interest spiked in their antioxidant value, as demonstrated by researchers such as Camire.
But there is only a finite number of potato peels to go around and the availability of them is directly tied to the production of the main product, which is the challenge with all food by-products.