Meet the mozzarella man

Rob Mitchell meets a technologist who was a leader in Fonterra's breakthrough to produce a stable, profitable mozzarella at production scale.

Keith Johnston's specialist subject is mozzarella.
Ian Porritt

Keith Johnston's specialist subject is mozzarella.

Keith Johnston, you have 90 seconds on your specialist subject, mozzarella. Your time starts now . . .

You wouldn't bet against him. After close to 30 years working with the glorious, stretchy cheese, the principal research technologist at Fonterra is considered a bit of a mastermind on this particular subject.

It's the dairy industry and national economy that are the biggest winners from his work and that of many others, especially after Fonterra's announcement that it is spending another $240 million on plant that will produce even more mozzarella for a market that can't get enough of the stuff. The co-op is to build a new mozzarella factory at Clandeboye that will double its output of the high-value product and also create 100 permanent new jobs.

It is believed to be the single largest food-service investment in the history of New Zealand dairy.

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That means Fonterra, on the back of world-leading science and innovation supported by the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain (TDVC) Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme, has invested more than $350 million in the past few years in an effort to carve out a bigger slice of a global pizza market worth close to $40 billion, creating dozens of permanent new jobs in the process.

The TDVC is a seven-year, $170 million innovation programme led by commercial partners, including DairyNZ and Fonterra, and partnered by the Ministry for Primary Industries. The programme aims to enable the creation of new dairy products, increase on-farm productivity, reduce environmental impacts, and improve agricultural education.

Playing a key role in the research and development around mozzarella has been a highlight in Keith's career, the culmination of a life dedicated to science and following a "logical approach to reach an end point".

Well, most of the time . . .

Like many of his colleagues Keith had a strong interest in science as a youngster.

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"It was one of my favourite subjects at school," he says. "It was mainly chemistry - I think I was fascinated with the way you could combine things and get something completely different."

Logic laid out a path to university and a science degree, but this was the 70s and jobs were as plentiful as the flowing locks on men's heads.

"So I decided to work and study at the same time."

Keith started a three-year, extra-mural New Zealand Certificate of Science and Chemistry. He also got a tip from an uncle about a job at the Cool Stores close to the port in his hometown, New Plymouth.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) had a lab there, one of about half-a-dozen around the country checking export products before they left the country.

"In those days you had to have a Government stamp. There were tests on dairy products – butter and cheese – and these were basically composition and general analytical, microbiological tests for quality, to ensure they were within certain specifications."

Keith was hired as a technician and undertook routine testing of caseins, before moving on to micro-testing of cheese. A few years later, barely 20 years old, he was managing some of the work done in the lab.

From there he moved to Hamilton to work in the National Dairy Laboratory - another MAF site - set  up by an Australian, Alan 'Blue' Twomey.

"I really wanted to work in that situation. Alan was a very enthusiastic, very motivated person and he had done a lot of work in the area of mastitis and raw milk harvesting and analysis. He was really excited about helping the farmer."

Keith spent 13 years in the lab, but the times, they were a-changing. It was the 80s - the long, luscious locks were gone. The clippers taken to men's hairstyles were also being applied to government coffers.

"The user-pays philosophy started to bite into MAF," he says. "There was a lot of rationalisation. I could see that not only would that laboratory disappear but the other MAF laboratories as well, so I was faced with the prospect of either staying in Hamilton and looking for a completely different job or finding something that would enable me to take a different path."

Keith went back to the future, entering the MAF Graduate Training Programme at the age of 34.

Back then it was an intensive one-year dairy science course for students who had finished their university studies. Keith qualified through his extensive work experience.

"It was a huge crossroads for me. I was married with a young son; everyone else was directly out of university - the majority of them were in their early 20s."

He was still working as well, his participation in the course sponsored by MAF, which meant it took him two years to complete. By which time this crossroads had highlighted a new path.

As part of his studies Keith had worked on a cheese project supervised by the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute (DRI) in Palmerston North, the predecessor to Fonterra's Research and Development Centre (FRDC). He asked his supervisors to remember him if any jobs came up.

They did remember, their recollection probably helped when he graduated with distinction from the course, finishing top of the class.

He began at the DRI in 1988. It was the early days of mozzarella as a product in New Zealand and there were issues.

"They were having problems controlling the functionality, the process and the shelf life of the product," says Keith. "One of my supervisors, Frank Dunlop (who would later become head of the Cheese Section at DRI), was developing a new process. And I came in and he said to me, mozzarella's the cheese of the future, so I helped with trials and I've been working on it ever since."

Cue the movie montage as Keith and others encounter numerous setbacks and work tirelessly towards their 'Rocky' moment atop the steps of success.

The DRI became the FRDC but the focus on making mozzarella a profitable option for the co-op and the wider industry remained the same.

Driven on by a strong belief in their science and the value of the product Keith and his colleagues looked at different processes. Some would fall over as production was scaled up, others would be trumped by bigger global competitors rushing their work to patent.

One such legal move ruined nine months of research and trials. "I could have sworn they were looking over my shoulder," says Keith, "watching what I was doing."

Back to the drawing board and yet more brainstorming sessions. Eventually Keith, another technologist, Peter Elston, and the rest of the team worked out a process they could patent that not only allowed the co-op to produce a stable, profitable mozzarella at production scale but one that could be used almost as soon as it was produced, rather than waiting many weeks, as is the case with traditional mozzarella.

That work and the commercialisation of the process was "the highlight of my career", says Keith. Others agreed. Keith's effort was recognised in 2007, when he received a Fonterra Distinguished Research Award. And three years ago the co-op was named most innovative exporter at the New Zealand Innovation Awards for its development of mozzarella.

But he's quick to acknowledge that it was a team effort and is just as proud that both the DRI and then Fonterra stuck with their initial "punt" on a new product and believed in the value and the science enough to see the process through to its profitable end point.

And there's more to come. Keith may be rolling the credits on team members who supported his great work, but the investment by the PGP programme that has helped grow the country's dairy science capability is producing more masterminds who will take mozzarella even further and enable the creation of other new and profitable products.

 

 - Stuff

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