Gavin Dunne is a pioneer. He has created a new food from olive ‘waste’ for the Wagyu beef market, the most expensive beef in the world.
Olive oil is a vital component of the Mediterranean diet and perceived by many as a natural health-food product. However, the olive waste stream, produced as a by-product of manufacture, can cause some challenging environmental issues. In 2017, a creative Irish startup devised a way to convert this crop waste into a high-value animal feed, favoured by the €1 billion a year Wagyu beef market. CEO, Gavin Dunne of the Olive Feed Corporation, shares his intriguing, circular economy ambition.
“Waygu beef, supplemented with olive feed is intensely marbled with softer fat.”
I came up with the idea in October 2016, while I was living in Crete, surrounded by millions of olive trees spread across valleys and mountain slopes. However, it was during a business trip to Japan, that I was first introduced to olive-fed beef. It was uniquely being produced in a tiny region, called the Sanuki Region. Some 100 years ago a small number of olive plots were planted there, and one local farmer had been using dried olives, as a supplementary feed for his Sanuki (Waygu) beef cattle. Drying the olives makes it a little more palatable for animal intake, but it’s not the best processing method for optimum digestibility by the animals.
Waygu beef, supplemented with olive feed is intensely marbled with softer fat and higher percentages of monounsaturated fats. In Japan, olive-fed Wagyu beef is now the most expensive beef in the world, and straight away I could see the commercial opportunity. I contacted my business partner and environmental scientist, Brian Dunne who has a farm in Edenderry and we decided to test and assess some of the olive feed out on his farm.
“The animals loved it, and so we began refining the cooking process.”
Solving the problem
For over 50 years people have been trying to use olive waste in animal feed. We decided to cook the olive feed, using different methods and temperatures. The animals loved it, and so we began refining the cooking process and developed a proprietary way of solving the problems of olive waste, which from an animal’s perspective are palatability, digestibility and safety from tannins.
In our cooking process, the sugars that are naturally present create a fantastic caramel smell, which makes it much more palatable for the animals to eat. Following on from this research, we decided to buy some Wagyu cattle and began feeding and testing on the farm.
“We have built a significant commercial opportunity while solving a major environmental issue.”
There is no standard method of olive waste disposal. When olive oil is produced commercially, the oil is separated out and saved, while the leftover water and solid residue are discarded. Discharges can pollute waterways and pumping the liquid fraction directly onto farmland, damages the soil and reduces crop yield. The waste material can also be refined into a fuel which can negatively impact air quality.
We feel it’s rare, where you can get the chance to match a significant commercial opportunity while solving a major environmental issue. The addition of olive feed in a ration can also reduce methane levels by a factor of 20-30%, and we are about to embark on some additional studies with Teagasc to help validate this. Once we release the results, we believe it can prove to be a game-changer, potentially reducing global greenhouse gas emissions within the livestock industry.
“We recently concluded a deal with one of the world’s largest olive oil refiners in Greece.”
As part of our research, we are going to establish the nutritional parameters or markers for olive-fed beef, followed by taste-testing of the beef in Teagasc’s new centre of excellence for sensory testing. The recommended inclusion rate of our olive feed is 2.5Kg / day over a four-month period. It contains 40% sugars and is highly calorific and great for finishing cattle. The oleic acid helps bring down the melting point of the fat, so when the beef is eaten, the fat tends to melt in the mouth.
Australia is one of our target markets and has a vast number of Wagyu beef feedlots. Every year they export around 200,000 head of Wagyu cattle to China, Asia, Japan and the Middle East. At the moment we are carrying out pilot tests on herds of 300 head which will, in turn, produce a lot of big data. All the large feedlots are interested in the product, and once the data is collected and analysed, we will then get back in touch with them.
At that stage, we will publish specifications for the nutritional and sensory parameters of olive-fed Wagyu beef. The Olive Feed Corporation will then in a position to certify all of the olive-fed meat produced, helping maintain the quality of the product, in the markets we target.
We have recently concluded a deal with one of the world’s largest oil refiners in Greece to produce our olive feed instead of producing olive-derived fuel. We have also taken over €200,000 in sales at the moment and we plan to fill those orders first and then line up next season’s olive production.
“We also aim to be leaders in methane reduction in animal feed.”
In five years’ time, we would like to see the olive feed, as a traded commodity on the international market. The Olive Feed Corporation aims to be the sole supplier of this product to Waygu, bovine and other animals, due to our patents and proprietary processing methods. We also aim to be leaders in methane reduction in animal feed, as globally this is one of the biggest problems facing agriculture. Our olive feed has many benefits both from the animal production and environmental perspective and we believe the Olive Feed Corporation can be at the forefront of this emerging industry over the next five years and beyond.
Interview by Brendan Byrne.