I left school at 16 and went straight into employment as a biomedical scientist at Darlington Hospital. For six of the eight years I worked there I studied biomedical sciences at Newcastle College. But it wasn’t the career for me.
A job as an analytical chemist at what was ICI [Imperial Chemical Industries] Wilton on Teesside came up in 1989 and I took it. The job gave me a real taste for chemical processing. In 1991 I moved across to ICI’s biological product plant in Billingham as a process technologist, which is where they were making Quorn.
Biological polymers for plastics and pharmaceutical intermediates, as well as other fermented products, were also produced at the plant. But one of the most successful products to come from the site was Quorn most of the other products fizzled and didn’t go very far.
I then took the opportunity to be a shift team leader and worked on the construction and commissioning of two new Quorn fermenters in 1993. They were both up and running by 1994. The plants were built by Marlow Foods, which owned the brand before Premier Foods bought it in 2005. It was then sold by Premier to Exponent Private Equity and Intermediate Capital Group in 2011. I stayed with the firm through the buyouts and became plant manager in 2005 and factory manager in 2011.
We have 100 full-time workers at this site. Production staff work 12-hour shifts and engineering staff work 50 hours-a-week Monday to Friday. Seven apprentices work on site and also carry out classroom-based learning with an external provider. Once they have finished their apprenticeship they will end up working for us.
Quorn, a patented mycoprotein, is a fungus known as Fusarium venenatum and was discovered in 1967 by a food scientist called Lord Ranks. He said that it ticked all of the right boxes for taste and texture as well as being high in protein. There were over 5,000 other organisms screened before they found this one.
The first Quorn product sold was a pie in Sainsbury in 1985, but the first ingredients, such as Quorn pieces, were marketed in 1990.
Quorn is made using fermentation. Each batch starts with less than 1g of Fusarium venenatum, which is stored in liquid nitrogen at temperatures of below -90°C. The starter is then put into a shaker flask with 500ml of liquid; it grows and fills the flask. It is then transferred to a 500l laboratory fermenter and from there it goes into one of our two 155,000l production fermenters. The site is in production 24 hours-a-day.
Boosting capacity (Return to top)
Each production run lasts 33 days, so we constantly feed and harvest the organism. We get the solids from the process by separating them from the liquids using a centrifuge. The liquid that’s left over is waste. We have an effluent treatment plant that purifies the waste stream, which then goes into the River Tees under strict environmental controls.
The final mycoprotein is chilled before being sent to our own processing site 15 minutes up the road at Stokesley, where they make frozen products for retail. The products we make include Quorn mince, chicken-style fillets and pieces, chicken-style nuggets and even peppered Quorn steaks.
Last year we produced 22,000t of mycoprotein and this year our output will rise to 24,000t, which is nearly the full capacity of the site.
Each fermenter can produce 12,000t a year, but they were originally built to produce 10,000t a year. We managed to increase output by altering feedstock and oxygen levels.
Inevitably, we needed a new fermenter to boost capacity and a £30M third one is now under construction and should be in operation before the end of July. The new third unit will provide us with an extra 14,000t of output.
We actually started to build the third fermenter in 2007 with Premier Foods, but unfortunately Premier had financial problems and the project was mothballed in 2008/09 and sat for five years.
Efficiency (Return to top)
Although we’re building a third unit, we will still work to improve our overall efficiency. For instance, we’re looking to install bigger air compressors, which are used to pump air into the fermenters to supply the mycoprotein with oxygen to allow it to grow. Currently we have five smaller air compressors in operation, but one large air compressor on each fermenter will give us a better economy of scale.
But, compressed air isn’t the most efficient way to oxygenate the mycoprotein, so we’re looking at extra oxygen injection points in the fermenters and instead of compressed air, which is 21% oxygen, we will inject 100% liquid oxygen into them, which is cheaper and more efficient.
Like many other large companies, we’re also conscious about energy consumption – not only because of its environmental impact, but because of the cost savings it can yield.
We use massive amounts of water, steam and electricity and over the past 10 years we’ve been trying to reduce those. Over the period, electricity has been reduced by 30% and steam and water by 50%.
Heat recovery (Return to top)
More recently, we installed two huge heat exchangers, which are used to recover heat from the fermenters. That's saving us a lot of energy and £300,000 a year.
Investments in the future will be as a result of the new £30M fermenter. Once the third fermenter is on line, we will have to use our existing centrifuges and chillers in the harvesting process, which will put strain on the system.
At some point we will need to build another harvesting plant, which will need to be done before the end of 2017. We will have no-sooner finished the fermenter when we will get the team working on the new harvesting facility. Building a new harvesting plant will cost around £15M – it’s of that magnitude.
The majority of the site is 20 years old and so is a lot of the equipment, which can be challenging sometimes. Having such an old plant means we constantly look at equipment obsolescence. In the future, we're going to have to replace more equipment due to ageing.
Further into the future, I think there could be a need for another fermentation site elsewhere. Kevin Brennan, our chief executive, has plans to make Quorn a $1bn global business.
Listen to our podcast in which Finn outlines the site’s efficiency schemes and further investment plans
Personal (Return to top)
Name: Steven Finn
Job title: Factory manager
Domestics: Married to Jan for 28 years with four children.
Outside of work: I enjoy cycling such a great way to travel. I’m a beekeeper and member of the local beekeeping association. I’m also learning to play bass guitar.
Proudest moment: Winning Premier Foods’s 2009 Employee Recognition gold award for process innovation and going on to be chosen as winner of the Grand Prix overall individual award out of 16,000 employees.
Location: Quorn Foods, Belasis Site, Nelson Avenue, Billingham, Cleveland, TS23 4HA
Staff: 100 and seven apprentices
Product: Quorn mycoprotein
Customers: Major retailers
Output: 24,000t, which will increase to 38,000t
Size of Site: Factory is 5,000m², but the site is 80,000m²