Dunedin-based forensic food-science firm Oritain is working with some big name players. Chief executive Grant Cochrane talks food fraud and protecting customers’ brands.

A brief description of your business

Oritain scientifically proves the origin of food, helping our customers protect their brand and reputations. What we’ve done is take the science that comes out of the criminal forensic field – which has been used to prove where bodies, bullets and shards of glass come from – and then apply it to the origin of food.

The business was founded in 2008 by Dr Helen Darling and Professor Russell Frew, and I got involved in 2011. We came out of the University of Otago and still have a fantastic relationship with them.

We do research with the University, and have employed a good number of scientists and graduates, so we’ve got a fantastic symbiotic relationship – and that’s one of the key reasons we’re based in Dunedin.

How big is the team?

We currently have just under 30 staff members and that has grown from around 15 a year ago and about seven three years ago.

What companies do you work with and why do they come to Oritain?

We deal with most New Zealand [food] exporters including Westland Farms, Lewis Road Creamery, Synlait, Silver Fern Farms, New Zealand Honey Co, Foodstuffs, Taylor New Zealand, Mr Apple, Aspara Pacific and Westland Milk Products.

Food fraud is a growing problem around the world, and it affects up to 10 per cent of world trade, so we work with anybody who wants to protect their brand.

People are really conscious and consumers want to know what they’re eating, but you only really get one chance to protect your brand. After a food fraud crisis the damage can often take years to recover. We’ve seen this with the [2013 European] horse meat crisis… it’s continually happening around the world.

Why was Oritain started up, with what aim?

The decision was driven by scientists and based around the power of the science used in the criminal field. Being a New Zealand-based company we saw an opportunity of how this type of science could be applied to our major exports.

Inside Oritain's food testing lab.

Inside Oritain’s food testing lab.

What does a typical ‘day in the life’ look like for you?

As is normal for a young company in a growth phase there is a lot of variability from day to day. A big part of my role is engaging with stakeholders including clients, investors, directors, and regulators. Given the complexity of the supply chains we are working with there is also a significant amount of travel.

We have a fantastic team of experts across a wide range of disciplines, combined with a very flat structure so this leads to a lot of collaboration across different functions within the business. As a result we all get a broad exposure to the drivers of our business.

You are personally based offshore in London, why did you open an office there?

Currently I spend approximately half my time in New Zealand and half in the UK.

About a year ago we set up an office in London, which has a total of eight staff members. We’ve seen a lot of growth in the UK and the European market and have operations in New Zealand, and a number of customers in Australia and North America as well.

It was the logical choice for a number of reasons, most importantly because consumers there are very aware of food safety issues following scandals such as the horse meat saga. The UK market is also very sophisticated in terms of branding and risk management and as such, our service resonates strongly with potential clients.

It is a very easy country to do business in given it has similar laws and culture.

How has Oritain changed since you joined in 2011?

There’s been a couple of major changes. One has been setting up a branch offshore. As a small, young company it’s been really challenging to operate in another market, and also we have expanded out our products.

We started out with the likes of dairy and meat, but now do fibre and pharmaceuticals.

How important do you think the process of being able to identify the origin of a product is in this industry?

It’s vital. If you don’t know where your product comes from, every other claim is irrelevant.

You see a lot of claims like fair trade coffee and organic and free range claims, but if you can’t be sure where your product comes from then all other claims are irrelevant. One of the big developments we have seen within the UK market at the moment is the concern around slave labour and labour practices.

With the new law in the UK on modern slave labour companies now have to ensure no slave labour has been used. Again, if you don’t know where you’re coffee beans or your prawns come from then it is very difficult to make those claims. We see origin as fundamental to food safety and protecting brands.

What’s the best thing to come from this type of business?

Personally, it’s fantastic to be working with bright, young science graduates and developing fantastic careers by innovating and investing.

There’s not a lot of opportunities for science in New Zealand so it’s great to build the opportunities there. It’s also really enjoyable working with customers who want to invest in brands that want to protect the brand of New Zealand, as well as their personal brand.

What advice do you give others thinking of starting a similar business?

Having good open communications with stakeholders – especially shareholders – is important, especially for businesses that do not have a traditional business model.

Focusing on long-term investments such as people and culture, building a barrier to competition entering the market and good governance are all hard to do, but totally worth the effort.

A lot of young businesses focus on employing people based on their skills but not the impact they have on culture, and then a few years down the track the company is performing but the culture is toxic. People are our biggest asset.

How much potential does this industry have?

I see this industry continuing to expand. It’s really exciting. Three years ago we didn’t think we’d do pharmaceuticals and that’s an incredibly large market.

Each new year we see a new growth opportunity and understand we’ve got to be nimble and always try to stay ahead of the field.

If we get it right there is a big prize out there because it’s such a large market.

NZ Herald