Food innovation centre plans major expansion

A Saskatchewan facility that helps food processors build their businesses is getting a multi-million dollar expansion.

The Agri-Food Innovation Centre (AFIC) — part of the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre Inc. — is planning a 12,000 sq. foot expansion this year, bringing total space at the Saskatoon facility to 55,000 sq. feet, up from the current 43,000 sq. ft.

The expansion will house three new incubation suites — specialized food processing suites that are leased to food processing companies and used to produce value-added food products.

It will also allow AFIC to expand its extrusion facilities, which convert Canadian crops into extruded snacks and food products.

“What we’re really trying to do is to stimulate the value-added food processing industry,” said Dan Prefontaine, president of the food centre.

“We help clients and entrepreneurs get new food products into the market, we give them an opportunity to lease space (in our incubator suites) and we help them grow so that eventually they can move out and set up facilities of their own.”

The Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre, also known as the Saskatchewan Food Centre, has been around for more than two decades.

It got its start in the late 1990s using funds from a federal compensation package, offered to the Prairie provinces when the Crow Benefit rail transportation program was eliminated.

In Saskatchewan funds from the federal compensation package were earmarked for agricultural diversification and innovation.

A small portion of the package, about $8.5 million, was placed in a fund, with interest earnings used to finance the food centre’s initial operating budget.

Over time, the food centre raised additional funds, secured a more stable funding agreement, and built a processing pilot plant at the University of Saskatchewan, which opened in 2001. (You can find that plant online here.)

The U of S pilot plant is equipped to manufacture a variety of food products from jams and jellies to sausages, granola bars and dried berries.

Clients can rent the pilot plant for short-term production purposes or they can contract the food centre for custom processing.

In 2015, the food centre acquired a second facility in southwestern Saskatoon and established AFIC.

The AFIC building includes administrative offices, laboratory space, extrusion equipment, incubator suites, food industry training facilities and a shipping and receiving area.

The food centre’s operations have also grown.

In addition to managing and operating the U of S pilot plant, the centre also assists clients with product and process development, offers custom food processing and food safety programming, and conducts provincial meat inspections on behalf of the province.

The food centre’s annual operating budget has grown from around $500,000 in the late 1990s to more than $3.5 million today.

“By the end of this year, we’ll probably be close to 50 staff,” Prefontaine said.

“I would argue that we’re probably one of the global leaders in plant-protein-based extrusion,” he added.

The AFIC expansion is scheduled for completion in 2020.

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