Food entrepreneurs and those who operate small, or very small, food companies face special obstacles in negotiating the regulatory landscape and finding ways to safely and economically get their products to consumers. In addition, a lot of confusion exists about what the state and federal regulations are for those developing food products on the local level, according to Dr. Manpreet Singh, associate professor of food science and an Extension food specialist at Purdue University. Singh detailed these hurdles during a presentation Monday at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meeting being held through Tuesday in Portland, OR. He said he’s contacted on a regular basis by people wondering how to get their food items, mainly produced in a home kitchen, approved for local sale. In response, he shares information about HACCP plans, FSMA regulations, rules about home kitchens vs. commercial kitchens, and general food safety tips. Not every inquiry can be successfully resolved in that one call. “Extension is not a one-stop shop,” Singh noted. Food safety issues relating to beef jerky and barbecue sauce are big issues in Indiana, he said, but products being developed and hawked by local food entrepreneurs run the gamut.
For anyone who provides guidance to the general public in these areas, Singh recommended starting with the basics and telling people to measure pH and water activity in their food products, since those are critical to controlling pathogens.
Access to appropriate food safety training for producing a high-acid product or an FDA-regulated product is also important, he said.
Dina Scott, total quality manager for Darden Restaurant Group, talked about some challenges involved in sourcing food items from smaller firms. Some trends she mentioned are increased demand for fresh foods and the need to buy ingredients from many countries.
“Consumers want fresh food year-round. Seasonal stuff is out the window. They also want organic and health-conscious foods. Studies show 58 percent prefer them if asked,” she said.
This situation possibly leads to a competitive edge for your company if you are able to get some of these products, Scott added.
At the same time, sourcing ingredients from around the globe raises food safety concerns, she noted. Some small companies may be air-drying your food item in the middle of a desert or in the middle of a street, then packaging it up and sending it here.
How to communicate about food safety with smaller businesses was the focus of Dr. Benjamin Chapman of North Carolina State University.
“Working with some of these people, the starting point is that their food doesn’t have any hazards,” he pointed out, adding, “Food carries risk. There are risks involved, and we do things to reduce risks.”
Chapman said he sees food products being made by someone at home and sold online. A couple of recent examples he cited were homemade pesto and cupcakes posted along with photos on a local website in North Carolina.
Some quotes he hears about why these practices aren’t food safety problems: “I’m not a scientist. I make food.” “We’ve been doing this for X years, and it’s never made anyone ill.” “It’s my mom’s recipe/process; she didn’t need science.”
Getting food entrepreneurs to follow the rules involves effective communication and coming across as knowing what you’re talking about, Chapman said.
His suggestions: Be legitimate, recognize these folks are not scientists, be compelling with your science, and tell them about similar businesses because that helps to encourage community.
Dr. Judy Harrison, a professor and Extension foods specialist at the University of Georgia, talked about bringing food safety awareness to the farmers market and cottage foods arenas. Training materials are important, along with a focus on best practices for produce safety, she said.
Free self-study courses called “On the Farm” and “At the Market” are available through the national eXtension website for small-scale farmers and farmers market managers who sell directly to the public, Harrison said. Also, the U.S. Small Business Administration has online information for those wanting to make their culinary hobby their job.
While states have differing regulations, Georgia defines “cottage foods” as those which are non-potentially hazardous foods with no time/temperature control needed, produced in a home kitchen and sold directly to the public, Harrison said.
These typically include breads, cakes, cookies, dried products, jams and jellies. “It’s a lot of sweet, dry items,” she said.
In her state, cottage foods cannot legally be distributed or wholesaled, cannot be shipped across state lines, can’t be sold to retail outlets or restaurants, or to institutions or schools or nursing homes.
IAFP 2015 continues through Tuesday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.
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