Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

From Costa Rica to Cornell, Padilla-Zakour finds her calling in food processing

From Costa Rica to Cornell, Padilla-Zakour finds her calling in food processing

When a small company in New York has a bright idea for a new food product, it typically turns to Olga Padilla-Zakour. When a large company, like Wegmans, is thinking of adding a new product line or a new vendor, it turns to Padilla-Zakour too.

Olga Padilla-Zakour of Geneva is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Food Services at the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Geneva.
Olga Padilla-Zakour (Photo by Kate Melton)

And when the state Department of Agriculture and Markets needs to make a decision about a new food-processing technology, it also turns to the director of the New York State Food Venture Center, a part of Cornell AgriTech in Geneva.

Padilla-Zakour, a native of Costa Rica, has worked at the food venture center since 1997, but her history with the center goes back at least a decade further. It’s where she did her graduate work, and where she met her husband, author and cartoonist John Zakour, who used to be a database programmer for what was once known as the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Food Venture Center is a processing authority, meaning it can certify that a food process is safe for commercial production. Gaining certification of a food process is a necessary step before a food producer can gain a license for commercial production of a new food product. The center Padilla-Zakour supervises is the main place food processors in New York State turn for this certification.

In 2018, 1,800 products received reviews of their food processes under Padilla-Zakour’s eyes.

She also oversaw a $13 million update, rebuilding the center’s food processing pilot plant and adding new equipment. And 2018 was the last full year that Padilla-Zakour will have juggled the duties of chair of the Cornell University Department of Food Science, a job that requires her to commute to the university’s main campus in Ithaca up to four days a week.

“I’m looking forward to really spending time here to (work toward) the goal of making this the food technology hub for the state of New York,” Padilla-Zakour said in Geneva during a recent lull in activity between semesters.

With the pilot plant’s renovation almost complete, Padilla-Zakour has set her next goal: a larger role for the center in support of innovation for New York’s food industry.

“I’m looking forward to really spending time here to (work toward) the goal of making this the food technology hub for the state of New York,” she said. “We’re looking for partnerships to co-locate companies within the AgTech Park.”

The neighboring Tech Farm, a food and agricultural company incubator, needs additional space for processing, she noted. “They might be able to use some of our space.”

Padilla-Zakour said the center’s second floor was not part of the recent renovation and is available for development. Consolidation of departments between Ithaca and Geneva, and cuts in state funding over the years have reduced the number of people working in the building, she said. The space could be used by a food technology company wanting to do research and development there, or even an equipment manufacturer that supplies the food industry.

From someone other than Padilla-Zakour, such plans might sound like pie in the sky. But she commands such respect among colleagues and industry, those familiar with her know her words are much more than idle daydreaming.

“It’s kind of like if Olga says something, that is the gold standard,” said Kathleen O’Connell-Cahill, director of food science and regulatory affairs for Wegmans. O’Connell-Cahill, who has worked at Wegmans for years, has known Padilla-Zakour since the latter was in graduate school at Cornell.

Not only is Padilla-Zakour’s expertise relied upon for analyzing food processing criteria, but she’s also consulted for advice at the idea stage of a product’s development.

“There are many times where we will be thinking about a product or thinking about a process we might want to introduce into the stores. We … seek counsel from Olga and just kind of talk through what would be our challenges or pitfalls,” O’Connell-Cahill said. Padilla-Zakour and the food venture center were quite helpful in developing Wegmans’ new vegetable purees, she said, along with a seasonal product about to hit the stores again later this winter — maple water, which is basically filtered tree sap.  “She really is a huge resource to agriculture, especially in New York, but even outside New York,” O’Connell-Cahill added.

While the center’s mission is to boost New York agriculture, Padilla-Zakour said, it also accepts clients from other states, too.

John Luker, assistant director for food safety inspection at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, said Padilla-Zakour has been a tremendous help to him both in his current job and when he worked in the food industry as a plant manager and in quality control.

“Everybody knows how to make food. Not everyone is aware of how to make food safely,” he said.

With the rapid introduction of new kinds of products to the market, state and federal regulations don’t always keep up, Luker said. That’s when Padilla-Zakour’s help is especially useful, he said, in determining new standards for food safety.

“For an example, if you vacuum-pack food products at retail, you can only have a 14-day shelf life,” under state regulations, Luker said. The food may actually be safe to eat well past that expiration date, though, he said. The manufacturer can get a “processing variance” to the 14-day limit by submitting its process to the Geneva food venture center and gaining its OK.

Luker said Padilla-Zakour and her staff review the process and often suggest tweaks or other changes that ensure its success.

“She’s been able to assist many, many producers, small and large … to bring their product to market,” Luker said.

Padilla-Zakour and the center also recently helped the state train its inspectors. Luker said that normally the state could only send a few inspectors for federal food safety inspection training, because there were limited openings and the training was usually far away. After the Cornell pilot plant was remodeled, Padilla-Zakour’s and her staff  mounted a federally approved training event there that allowed more than 25 state inspectors to receive the training at one time.

“She was a direct part of the team that worked diligently putting it all together,” Luker said. “Her accessibility, her staff’s, the willingness to take on pretty much anything … always willing to look at a new product.  That’s probably the biggest thing,” Luker said.

Cornell’s Food Venture Center, which has an outpost in Brooklyn, too, is the only processing authority in the state that can handle high pressure processing, Luker said, referring to a cold processing method using vacuum sealing that is preferred in some instances because it causes less alteration of the food’s characteristics than other methods.

Padilla-Zakour grew up in Costa Rica, the sixth of eight children from a mother who served in Costa Rica’s national congress. Good in science and math, she described herself as a nerd as a teenager but an athletic one. She said she played on Costa Rica’s national softball team for a time and also played basketball, volleyball and other sports.

When she was still in high school, the young Olga Padilla set her sights on chemical engineering. A school counselor suggested she think about nutrition, but she rejected the idea because it would have meant moving to Guatemala for college. During her first semester as a chemical engineering major, true to her scientific method, she requested the syllabi of all the academic programs taught at her college. She discovered food technology contained many of the same courses as chemical engineering, but added microbiology of foods and others.

“I thought, maybe this is better,” she said, and switched after the first semester. Food technology combined her interest in native Costa Rican fruits with her talents in science and math.

After gaining a five-year degree called a licensure, Padilla took a job as a supervisor at a food processing plant in a tiny town in Costa Rica in 1983. She commuted from her family’s home each week and stayed with a family in the village, traveling to and from the plant each day by motorbike.

“I learned a lot, let’s put it that way,” Padilla-Zakour said in answering a question about being a young woman in charge at a time and place when women often didn’t take such roles. “People were very grateful to have a job,” she said. But the plant’s mechanic quit when she became the plant manager a year later. “He was not going to report to a young woman,” she said.

Padilla-Zakour soon started looking for opportunities to gain additional expertise; graduate school seemed like the best route. An acquaintance with knowledge of Cornell said that was the place she needed to go if she wanted to gain practical experience in food processing as well as a more academic background. So she applied for and gained a scholarship from the United States Agency for International Development and listed Cornell as her first choice.

Padilla-Zakour arrived in Ithaca in 1986.  Her master’s degree work focused not on one of the tropical crops she was familiar with from Costa Rica, but on apples, because Padilla-Zakour could have access to them in the fields and help harvest and guide them through the processing equipment at Cornell.

While she was working on her master’s degree, a professor in the extension part of Cornell started the food venture center in 1988, and the university staff encourage her to continue on for a doctorate. USAID was not excited about that prospect, she suggested, because of the extra expense required to extend her visa, but Cornell came up with the necessary funding for Padilla-Zakour to continue.

Trying to decide whether to accept, she consulted her mother in Costa Rica. “She said, ‘Nothing is going to change here in three years. You should think about it,’ ” Padilla-Zakour recalled.

She finished her Ph.D. in May 1991 as a married woman and the young couple moved to Costa Rica by August of that year. She taught at a university while her husband employed a fax machine to transmit writing assignments, which included science fiction novels, back to the United States.

After three years, and the birth of their son, John Sebastian, the couple moved back to the Geneva area. When the young  mother was ready to start looking for full-time work again, she landed a job with Canandaigua Wine Co. (now Constellation Brands) at its Mission Bell Winery in California. Padilla-Zakour worked as a research chemist focusing on processing wine and juice concentrates in the best ways to extract their nutraceuticals.

“I was comfortable in the job in the second year,” Padilla-Zakour said, adding that the heat of the Central Valley of California suited her tropical roots. But then the job running the food venture center in Geneva opened when one of her mentors retired. “We were far from both families and we had a little child,” she said.

Padilla-Zakour was concerned because the job at that time wasn’t a tenure-track position. But looking back 21 years later, she said, “I think it’s the best decision I made.”

In the years since, her job has morphed to include teaching, research, and extension services working directly with industry. Eight years ago, the food science and food science technology departments at Ithaca and Geneva, respectively, merged. She became chair a few years later.

In her time at the center, fees that it charges companies to certify their processes have made the center self-sustaining, she said.

“Because we have so much experience, we can handle thousands of schedule processes” in a year.

Last week, some of the new equipment for the pilot plant was still being set up.  When it’s finished, Padilla-Zakour said, “we’ll be in a place where you can test different technologies at the same time.”

The updated facilities help attract new grants, Padilla-Zakour said, as well as graduate students to carry out research.

“There are so many bright people that want to get into this area,” she said.

“I really enjoy working with the students but also the entrepreneurs, because you’re helping them directly.”  When she leaves the chair position in June, she’ll be able to dedicate more time to both.

[email protected]/(585) 363-7275

Olga Padilla-Zakour

Title: Director of the Cornell Food Venture Center at Cornell AgriTech, Geneva, and chair of Food Science, Cornell University

Age: 58

Residence: Geneva

Education: Bachelor’s degree in food science, University of Costa Rica, 1983; master’s degree in food science and technology, Cornell University, 1988; doctorate in food science and technology, Cornell, 1991.

Family: Husband, John M. Zakour; son, John S. Zakour

Hobbies: Until a herniated disc sidelined her, Padilla-Zakour enjoyed competitive softball, basketball, volleyball, speed roller skating and pickleball. She continues to participate in bicycling and table tennis.

Quote: “I’m looking forward to really spending time here to (work toward) the goal of making this the food technology hub for the state of New York.”