Extension specialist holding a thermometer
Bob Lane working with crab pasteurization equipment during a visit to Graham and Rollins Seafood. Photo by Keri Rouse for Virignia Tech.

The selection of seafood products available today is vast, and behind every can of crab meat or bag of frozen cooked shrimp is a precisely developed process that balances temperature, time, materials, and many other critical factors to ensure a product is being processed and packaged optimally for food safety and quality.

Bob Lane has built a career working closely with seafood industry stakeholders to engineer, validate, and improve these processes. Last year, after 33 years of dedicated service, Bob retired from his role as a seafood engineer with Virginia Tech’s Virginia Seafood AREC, the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and as an Extension specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Sea Grant.  

Since his formal retirement last spring, Bob became an affiliate faculty member with the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC) and continues to support the industry through some processing, validation, and engineering work in the program he helped build.

"For me, the most satisfying aspect of engineering is seeing a project through from start to finish, when all the pieces fall into place and work together," said Bob. "This work identifying industry challenges and finding practical solutions is very collaborative in nature, and I will miss that the most."

Throughout his career, Bob proved instrumental in helping seafood processors improve their operations through process validation, temperature monitoring, and the adoption of new technologies. Based out of the Virginia Seafood AREC in Hampton, Virginia, he was well-positioned to apply his engineering background and support seafood processors and distributors. 

"When we would go to Bob for help with our pasteurization and packaging procedures, he went above and beyond every time,” said Johnny Graham, co-owner of Graham and Rollins, a fourth-generation family-owned business with a reputation for being one of the largest crab processors on the East Coast. "Bob has been there for us to lean on for technical guidance for as long as I can remember."

Bob's diligence and commitment to supporting safe industry standards were apparent to Graham when he sought help developing processing procedures for a new plant in Colombia.

"I would conduct tests at the plant in Colombia and wait at night to fax the numbers back and forth with Bob," said Graham. "Bob monitored the data back at the Virginia Seafood AREC and helped provide the proper instrumentation and measures to develop and validate the pasteurization process."

Since joining the Virginia Seafood AREC in 1988, Bob has worked closely with seafood industry stakeholders to provide technical assistance and process validation to help businesses develop, improve, and maintain their processing operations to remain competitive. His guidance and expertise have had a far-reaching impact, not only in the local seafood sectors but also internationally.

Graham says he recalls Bob's involvement when Virginia Tech was developing standardized pasteurization procedures for cooking crab meat in the 1980s.

"Having a set standard for crab pasteurization that became adopted across the whole industry helped create some consistency and ultimately helped increase public trust in the quality and safety of products," said Graham.

Bob played a crucial role in improving systems and developing technologies that have helped the seafood processing industry. One of his notable collaborative contributions was the development of an automatic control system for crab cooking and a separate one for crab pasteurization. This innovative device helped seafood processors improve their operations, optimize energy usage, and ensure their products met the highest safety and quality standards.

Bob describes the device as "a controller that changes process heating based on feedback from the temperature of the processed product or water bath to achieve a preset total time and temperature cook." 

"It gained traction in the industry and rose to an international level. Many processors now use that equipment instead of having individuals rely on handheld and hand control applications," said Bob.

"This new equipment improved the ability of the crab industry to get pasteurization done right, while having less issues without the need to re-cook or re-pasteurize crab meat," said Graham.

Bob's interest in engineering was sparked by his family influences, his uncle, an aerospace engineer with NASA, and his dad, who worked with engineering applications as a patent agent. He pursued this interest by earning his degree in Agricultural Engineering from Virginia Tech in 1978. After graduation, Bob began his early career at Virginia Power, where he gained valuable experience assessing energy needs and cost of energy operations for various industrial and commercial customers in industries ranging from industrial gas production, poultry and chocolate, to plastics and siding material.

"I had good supportive professors in the Agricultural Engineering department at Virginia Tech who helped me evaluate and hone in on my academic goals and professional aspirations," said Bob.

He brought his experience and expertise back to Virginia Tech in 1988 when he joined the Virginia Seafood AREC to aid seafood processors in designing, assessing, and improving systems for safely producing, processing, distributing, and storing seafood products. 

Research and extension are crucial to the success of the Virginia seafood industry, providing technical knowledge and support to the industry. Applying his extensive knowledge in temperature control, energy conservation, process validation, and engineering to assist the industry throughout his career, Bob worked over his career designing pasteurization systems, developing energy-saving automatic chilling devices, and providing technical assistance through process validation. 

"Bob's contributions to the seafood industry have been invaluable, and we are extremely grateful for his knowledge and guidance throughout his career," said Virginia Seafood AREC Director Michael Schwarz. "Not only has he directly impacted stakeholders through his work but his dedication and expertise have also been crucial to the center's growth. We are fortunate that even in his retirement, Bob continues to work with us as an affiliate faculty member to share his wealth of knowledge and experience with the industry."

Written by Keri Rouse.