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Cheesy goodness: microbiology alum honored for contributions to students, health, and food industry

by Sarah Ryan

Rick Barz never imagined that pizza cheese would become his passion and his life's work.

When he graduated from Colorado State University in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, Barz thought he’d do laboratory research at a hospital. Then he saw a post for an entry-level microbiology job at a family-owned cheese business in Denver.

Taking the pizza world by storm

Barz had a leg up, having taken a food-science class in addition to his microbiology coursework. He was soon working for Leprino Foods Co., a mozzarella maker poised to take the pizza world by storm. Though Barz did not anticipate applying his microbiology training to propagate cheesy goodness, the company’s culture of innovation and risk-taking fed his successful career in the food industry.

Microbiologist Richard Barz helped Leprino Foods become the No. 1 mozzarella manufacturer in the world and a major business in Colorado. He is pictured with Mark Stetter, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“Leprino was a small, growing company with very little hierarchy,” Barz said. “They prized a willingness to do whatever was needed, internally or externally, and an ability to jump in and help colleagues and customers.”

During his 37 years at Leprino – now the largest mozzarella producer in the world – Barz developed more than 20 patented technologies that gave the company economic and manufacturing advantages. These innovations include an individually quick frozen (IQF) method that maintains the moisture of cheese granules for improved storage and baking; an alteration

 in cheese composition with the addition of starch, allowing for simultaneously browned, bubbly cheese and a fully baked crust; and the “same day dice” process, which reduces the time it takes to turn milk into frozen, shredded cheese from two weeks to just four hours.

Barz recognized as 2013 Honor Alumnus

On Oct. 10, the CSU Alumni Association recognized Barz as 2013 Honor Alumnus for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The award is conferred to alumni for contributions and service to their communities, their professions, and to the university.

Barz was honored for ingenuity and management skills that helped catapult Leprino to its standing as exclusive mozzarella supplier to three major U.S. pizza chains. He also was recognized for advocating public health, and for recruiting and hiring dozens of CSU graduates.

“We are very proud to call Rick Barz an alum. He took his CSU education and applied it creatively in industry and regulatory affairs. He is a model of the impact our microbiology students can have out in the world,” said Gregg Dean, head of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology.

Barz said that as a young food scientist, he was inspired by George Reinbold, Leprino’s head of research and development and a world-famous microbiologist. Reinbold hired Barz as a technician in Leprino’s first quality-control laboratory.

“I loved to learn, and he loved to teach,” Barz recalled. “Dr. Reinbold showed me that you don’t stop learning when you leave school.”

Humble business turned mozzarella empire

Leprino Foods started in Denver in 1950 when Italian immigrant Mike Leprino Sr. began making small batches of mozzarella by hand in his neighborhood grocery store.

Today, the family business is a $3 billion empire that produces 2 billion pounds of cheese per year, helping Americans to devour pizza at the rate of 350 slices per second. Much of Leprino’s growth is due to innovations in cheese technology that have kept the company on the leading edge.

With help from its research and development, Leprino is exclusive mozzarella supplier to three of the nation's biggest pizza chains.

Leprino has 4,000 employees and 12 production plants worldwide. The most recent to come online is a Greeley, Colo., plant that opened in 2011 and processes 5 million pounds of milk each day. The plant’s economic impact in Colorado is expected to total more than $10 billion over the next 20 years.

Barz thrived in the company that rewarded risk-taking as the U.S. pizza industry was exploding. Chains including Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza, and Little Caesars Pizza needed huge quantities of frozen cheese that wouldn’t burn in new convection and conveyor-belt ovens, and Leprino met the demand by investing in research and development.

Barz advanced from research technician to vice president of product quality and development in just over 10 years. While he oversaw research and quality control, Leprino became the exclusive mozzarella supplier to Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s Pizza, a position it still holds. 

An advocate for health

In addition to developing Leprino’s production plan and major accounts, Barz became a passionate advocate for public health and nutrition. He worked with Denver Public Schools, Colorado state agencies, Los Angeles Unified School District, and New York City to improve the nutrition standards for dairy products served in schools. He collaborated with regulatory and legislative groups, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and Centers for Disease Control, on approving the use of lower-fat and lower-sodium cheese products for schools.

Barz, who retired from Leprino last year, also became a mentor and advocate for CSU students. He has collaborated on BioTech Connect, an annual networking event for CSU students and faculty; facilitated the development of the Plan B Master of Science program in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology; and recruited top graduates from CSU to Leprino foods.

After nearly four decades of service to the industry, Barz advises students: “Assuming you have technical skills, nothing beats a commitment to continued learning and growing. With a little bit of patience, the cream does rise to the top.”