Sit down and listen to a nutrition expert from a leading company and you'll probably end up adding to your glossary of terms. That's what happened to me last week when I joined a group of folks attending the Alltech Lecture Tour. I was able to sit in on the Mankato, Minn., stop - one of 24 on this year's schedule.
The folks at Alltech are serious about the future of food production and their role in it with natural supplements and feeding technology. They have their hand in a lot of areas, from gene chips to Haitian coffee, and are making great strides in a lot of areas. One that caught my attention is the term "nutrigenomics."
While it's not a new term it's one I haven't hear much about, until Kate Jacques, Alltech's director of nutrition, gave a talk during the tour. The word sums up what it's about - providing nutrition built around gene expression. In essence, you would feed an animal with a "programmed nutrition" diet aimed at bringing out the best in the animal.
It's a science that's in its infancy, but work is being done around the world on the topic. "It's so important, that at Alltech we've decided to take all our research on the topic into the company," Jacques told the group.
Alltech already has expertise in microarray technology - often called a "gene chip" - that allows them to determine how genes are expressing in an animal at any given time. It's a kind of rapid test for gene expression, or gene suppression. In essence, they're learning how different dietary components are taken in by an animal and put to use.
Jacques explains that in the past the food revolution was about boosting production of meat, milk and eggs. With this technology, the next step is enhancing the quality of the finished product while also boosting output. "How does nutrient A impact product B?" she asks.
So how might it work? Jacques gave two examples - one for poultry and the other for beef.
In the poultry example, Alltech has looked at the diets of hatched chickens, which is often a three stage diet based upon age. "But what about the first 90 hours of the chicken's life? We looked at that, and came up with a hatchling ration," Jacques says.
This special diet for very young birds is aimed at getting off to a better start. The resulting mature chicken produces improved quality meat with measurable differences in meat quality for moisture retention and other factors that key customers - like KFC - are seeking. Jacques notes that this is preliminary work, but there are measurable differences in meat quality for those birds.
The main idea is making sure that animal nutrition keeps up with the enhanced genetics of breeding programs where farmers and companies are making investments.
In the case of that poultry diet, Jacques notes that key customers are looking for key components including sensory, flavor, olfactory and shelf-life qualities. In addition, over time, the effort will be aimed at improving the nutritional value of the meat itself through targeted dietary programs.
For beef, Alltech is fine-tuning cattle diets with its own Alltech Angus brand of beef. Tweaking formulations along with ration changes matched to life stages (just as with chickens) in an effort to improve the finished product.
"We took the risk with our own branded product," Jacques says. "There was an opportunity that we would get it wrong."
Apparently they got it right, because Alltech Angus beef is now served in more than 150 Kentucky restaurants and in some the product is actually branded on the menu. Jacques says with this new feeding program - again still under trial - the company has achieved meat that is pretty tender. "In fact this is meat that you can cut with a spoon," she says.
And the payoff - beyond product quality - is that average daily gains are up as much as 20% which reduces time to market. That helps cover for the potentially higher cost of the ration. With nutrigenomics, Alltech is also working to target beef cholesterol and fat content - again seeking a more nutritional finished product.
Someday, livestock and poultry producers will be looking at dietary issues for those animals in new ways - with an eye toward maximizing their genetic pool and boosting the nutritional value and quality of the finished product in new ways. It's an interesting tech thought. We'll keep you posted.