Producing high-quality rice is a team effort and the annual Rice Processing Program Industry Alliance meeting here is where industry leaders compare notes, research and resources.
Hosted by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture in the nation’s No. 1 rice producing state, more than 100 industry representatives, rice growers, equipment suppliers and consultants attended this year’s meeting, May 20-21.
“This is a signature event for our Rice Processing Program,” said Terry Siebenmorgen, University Professor of food science and director of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Rice Processing Program. “Not only does the industry support us with funding and equipment, but they also provide us important end-user feedback.”
Siebenmorgen said the Rice Processing Program team investigates a wide range of topics from kernel development to consumer wants. The team’s expertise includes plant physiology, carbohydrate chemistry, process engineering, plant pathology and sensory analysis.
With alliance support, program scientists are tackling some of the biggest challenges in the rice industry. One of the best examples of this partnership, Siebenmorgen said, has been the discovery and understanding of the role nighttime air temperatures play in determining rice processing quality.
For many years, rice companies experienced unexplained variability in the processing quality of Mid-South rice. Head rice yield — the number of kernels that remain intact during milling — would vary from one year to the next.
In addition, processors found that in some years, rice had to be cooked at higher temperatures or for longer times during the manufacture of food products. This slowed production and drove up energy costs.
A decade of research revealed that high nighttime temperatures during kernel development disrupt the formation of starch in the rice kernel. Starch becomes less densely packed in the seed, resulting in a chalky texture with an undesirable appearance and weaker kernels that tend to break during milling. The chalky structure also changes the way rice cooks.
Division scientists believed the problem lay in the agricultural timeline, Siebenmorgen said, and began by looking at the chemical and physical properties of rice. Differences in the geographic distribution of the problem began to suggest temperatures contributed to the problem.
The causes were pinned down thanks to nature – observations during a particularly cool summer compared to those during a record-breaking hot summer – and critical industry support.
Texas-based RiceTec gave division scientists access to their Phytotrons — essentially huge growth chambers in which environmental variables, including nighttime air temperatures, could be controlled. The company also gave Nora Cooper, a master’s degree student in food science, an internship that allowed her to run the needed tests.
The entire Rice Processing Program team contributed to the many pieces of information that collectively identified high nighttime air temperatures as the culprit, Siebenmorgen said, and the Division of Agriculture’s relationship with rice processing companies was a valuable asset during their investigation.
The relationship continues to be valuable as the program looks into solutions for mitigating the nighttime temperature problem – Siebenmorgen said development of new rice varieties with improved heat tolerance is most promising – as well as other information and new technologies that will help the industry improve it’s products.
Ongoing research includes increasing understanding of the rice kernel’s chemistry and physical development; improving rice drying, storage and processing; sensory perception and consumer satisfaction of rice foods; and other areas that will lead to high quality and sustainable food products.
Smith noted that the Division of Agriculture Rice Processing Program Industry Alliance Meeting was growing while other industry meetings were fading. “I think the attendance testifies to how this meeting makes a difference for the industry,” he said. “If it didn’t, we wouldn’t come.”
“This meeting promotes a relationship that allows university scientists to understand the industry and allows us to tap into research that can affect changes that result in the best products,” said Michael Smith, vice president of quality and innovation for Riceland Foods of Stuttgart and Jonesboro. “The research helps us better understand rice and how processing affects it, and also helps us contain costs so that we can offer products that satisfies changing consumer preferences.”
Smith said the annual meeting also offers a venue for rice companies, farmers and scientists to interact. “This meeting allows the industry to come together as a community focused on rice,” he said.