Major employer in Rockland celebrates 75 years of producing seaweed extract

Posted Nov. 15, 2013, at 4:53 p.m.
These are some of the many products which contain carrageenan.
Stephen Betts
These are some of the many products which contain carrageenan.

ROCKLAND, Maine — The FMC plant that encompasses 13 acres on the downtown waterfront and employs more than 100 has been an integral part of the community for more than 75 years. And the producer of carrageenan, a seaweed extract used in food processing, is taking steps to continue those close ties.

FMC celebrated Thursday the 75th anniversary of the Rockland plant producing carrageenan by announcing two sizeable grants to the science programs at Oceanside High School. The company is also moving ahead with a project to convert to an alternate fuel that will both save money for the plant but also reduce its carbon footprint.

The manufacturing plant’s sole product is carrageenan, which is derived from various types of seaweed and is used as a gelling, thickening and stabilizing agent in products such as chocolate milk, yogurt, salad dressing, Listerine pocket packs, toothpaste, and even the Thanksgiving turkeys that many people will feast on later this month.

The history of the plant dates back to December 1936, according to the “Shore Village Story” which is a history book of Rockland done by the Rockland Historical Society. Businessmen Robert Holt and Victor LeGloahec formed a company called Algin Corporation of America that later became known as Marine Colloids and now is part of FMC. The company did not begin producing carrageenan, however, until 1938, making this the 75th year.

In the 1970s and into the early 1980s, the company was the largest employer in Rockland with 300 workers. Changes in technology and a bitter labor strike in the early 1980s led to a reduced workforce but the company remains one of the largest employers in Knox County.

FMC currently employs 130 people and nearly a third of those are specialized scientific and technology jobs. The company is also the largest property taxpayer in Rockland, putting $435,000 into municipal coffers last year. The company is also the largest user, by far, of the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

The company has regularly provided what are called minigrants to the local high school for a range of activities, including to support a sustainable vegetable and herb garden, maintain a fruit orchard and allow students to serve as pages at the State House in Augusta.

On Thursday, the company announced it was donating $7,500 to Oceanside High School East in Rockland and $7,500 to Oceanside High School West in Thomaston. The money will go to the science programs at the high schools.

“We want to encourage math and the sciences,” FMC Plant Manager Jeff LaBrozzi, said Thursday, pointing out that it is difficult to find people with the necessary skills needed at the company.

“Science and math education is crucial to our facility,” said Rodney Mason, the maintenance manager for FMC’s plant in Rockland.

Dave Allen, a retired teacher from Rockland and a member of the FMC Rockland Community Advisory Panel, praised the contribution of the company.

“It would be nice to keep some of our better graduates here,” Allen said.

Lorain Francis, executive director of Rockland Main Street, agreed, saying FMC’s involvement with the schools was very exciting and very much needed.

FMC produces carrageenan from seaweed harvested largely from the Philippines, Indonesia, Africa, and Chile. Some of its raw material also comes from Vietnam and as close as Canada. The plant brings in 25 million pounds of seaweed each year.

FMC has a carrageenan plant in Cebu in the Philippines, which is located on the edge of where the super-typhoon Haiyan struck last week. There was some damage to that plant with a roof being blown off but it suffered more damage from an earthquake three weeks earlier that knocked over racks of products. The natural disasters will have no effect on the supply of carrageenan nor affect the Rockland plant, company officials said.

The Rockland plant manager said 2013 was a good year and next year looks as good, with the product to be manufactured in 2014 already sold out to customers.

The company does not manufacture food products at the plant but sells the carrageenan to larger companies which use it in their products. Carrageenan makes food products better, LaBrozzi said.

One example is ice cream.

“You want to firm up the ice cream to get a nice smooth mouth feel. A lot of what we sell is mouth feel,” he said.

And since it has no calories, it provides foods a feel of having fat but without it.

Carrageenan is also used in hams and turkeys to keep them moist, he said.

“That is why turkeys are not dry like they were when you were a kid,” LaBrozzi said.

FMC is looking to the future in Rockland by making its plant more energy efficient. In April, the company had a public meeting to announce that it was looking at converting from oil to natural gas. That project would have consisted of four 35-foot-tall, 18,000-gallon tanks to store liquid natural gas.

But LaBrozzi said since then, the company has shifted to looking at using compressed natural gas. He said the conversion would create a win-win situation by reducing energy costs while dramatically reducing emissions.

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