Israeli agritech prowess to help New Jersey produce healthier food

Agreement between Tel Hai College and Rutgers University aims to make prepared foods that are better for you

MK Erel Margalit, (R)  and Rutgers Food Innovation Center Director Lou Cooperhouse at the signing ceremony at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Friday, September 18, 2015.  (Ron Sachs)
MK Erel Margalit, (R) and Rutgers Food Innovation Center Director Lou Cooperhouse at the signing ceremony at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Friday, September 18, 2015. (Ron Sachs)

A new agreement on the development of healthy food products between Israel’s Tel-Hai College and New Jersey’s Rutgers University brings together two groups that together, leaders of the institutions believe, will be able to greatly advance the cause of healthy foods.

A cooperation deal between Rutgers, Tel-Hai, and the State of New Jersey to form the New Jersey-Israel Healthy, Functional, and Medical Foods Alliance was signed earlier in September at a ceremony on the campus of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, an incubator/accelerator that works with start-ups developing technology for healthier prepared foods.

One of the major backers and facilitators of the project was Labor MK Erel Margalit, chairman of the Knesset’s Economic Development Taskforce. “It has been my vision to establish regions of excellence across Israel, that attract investment and encourage significant job growth,” Margalit said. “This alliance with Rutgers will create a center of excellence in the Galilee region that will leverage the area’s agriculture, life sciences and food industry expertise, transforming the region into a medical food global powerhouse.”

Israel is well-known for its agricultural technology. Israeli cows, for example, are the world champs in milk production, yielding on average 12,000 liters of milk a year, far more than anywhere else (in the US, it’s about 7,000 liters). Israel is also a world innovator in applying big data tech to increasing yields on farms: Big data applications from a company called Akol tell farmers which crops they should plant, based on climate and location, and when to plant and harvest for maximum yields. Other Akol applications provide information to farmers on feed mix to give their cows, ideal storage procedures for their climate, tracking the growth of chickens or livestock, temperature control procedures based on current weather, and tracking fruit growth and scheduling irrigation. They also generate reports of milk samples for quality control.

New Jersey, meanwhile, is a leader in processed food production. While the Garden State is perceived as an urban center (due to its proximity to both New York City and Philadelphia), it is actually a leading state in terms of agricultural income per acre, and one of the top states for processed food manufacturing. The Rutgers Food Innovation Center seeks to leverage these capabilities in order to support and expand the state’s food industry.

Healthy eating – including what has become known as “medical foods” – is the wave of the future for processed foods, many industry experts believe. As consumers become more aware of obesity issues, and the connection between their health and additives, sugar, chemicals, and other features of food, they are asking more questions about what they are eating – and how to improve it. Now officially sanctioned by the FDA, the “medical food” label is used on hundreds of products that claim to boost protein, vitamins, intelligence, immunity to specific diseases, and more. (One example is Ensure, a very popular protein drink that promises to support adult digestive tract health; in 2009, it alone was responsible for a billion dollars in sales in a medical health market valued at an estimated $1.6 billion.)

Discussions that led to the alliance’s formation began during a visit to Israel last June by Lou Cooperhouse, director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, and Jessica Paolini, economic development manager with Choose New Jersey, a non-governmental agency with statewide marketing efforts for economic development purposes. Michele Brown, president and CEO of Choose New Jersey, participated in the announcement ceremony at Rutgers.

“We are thrilled with the many possibilities of this new collaboration and have high expectations for the economic development benefits that might result for the State of New Jersey,” Brown said. “With the food and life sciences industries being such key components of our state’s economy, and their linkages to so many businesses in New Jersey, this alliance can have a huge impact on the marketplace and on job creation.”

For Tel Hai, located in the far north of Israel, close to the Lebanese border, the project is a major boost – one of the highest-level international agreements it has entered into.

Prof. Yossi Mekori, incoming president of Tel-Hai College and a prominent leader in Israeli medical sciences, said: “We see significant outcomes that can result from this alliance, with potential transformation of our food industries in Israel and in New Jersey and extended global impact. Tel-Hai College’s capabilities in academics and research are the ideal platform for this unique and promising collaboration.”

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