How Alcoholic is Kombucha?

Researchers are studying kombucha to determine whether kombucha brands are unintentionally selling the fermented tea with a high alcohol content. The study, by the British Columbia Center for Disease Control, is testing hundreds of kombucha samples sold at grocery stores and farmers markets for ethanol levels. The fermentation process makes all alcohol slightly alcoholic, but in the U.S. the drink has to be sold below 0.5% to be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage. In Canada the amount is higher, at 1.1%. Researchers are looking at how different control factors affect kombucha’s alcohol content, like how cold refrigeration temperature, where it’s stored in the fridge, how it’s made and type of tea and flavors used.

Read more (CTV News)

Thousands of new state laws were passed across America this year, and dozens affect fermentation businesses — small and large — as well as home fermenters. 

Government agencies are loosening some strict health code and alcohol regulations, laws that made running an artisanal business difficult. There are also new opportunities being created that allow craft breweries to expand their operations, such as entertainment districts where beer can be sold and enjoyed legally.

Read on for the breakdown of 2019 food laws passed in each state

Alaska

SB16 — Expands state alcohol licenses to include recreational areas. After the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board began cracking down on alcohol licenses in 2017, several recreational sites were denied licenses to sell alcohol. The bill, known as “Save the Alaska State Fair Act,” now expands license types to the state fair, ski areas, bowling alleys and tourist operations. 

Arizona

HB2178 — Removes red tape for small ice cream stores and other milk product businesses to manufacture and sell dairy products. The bill, called the “Ice Cream Freedom Act,” allows smaller mom and pop businesses to make milk-based products without complying with state regulations designed for large dairy manufacturers. 

Arkansas

HB1407 — Prohibits false labeling on agricultural products edible by humans. That includes misleading labels, like labeling agricultural products as a different kind of food or omitting required label information.

HB1556 — Ends the “undisclosed and ongoing investigations” of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, and the Alcoholic Beverage Enforcement Division.

HB1590 — Limits the number off-premise sales of wine and liquor in the state to one permit for every 7,500 residents in the county or subdivision. Small farm wines are the exception to the new law. 

HB1852 — Allows a microbrewery to operate in a dry county as a private club, without approval from the local governing body.

HB1853 — Amends the Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Acts to increase the amount of local farm and food products purchased by government agencies (like state parks and schools).

SB348 — Establishes a Hard Cider Manufacturing Permit. Cider brewers can apply for the annual $250 permit, authorizing the sale of hard cider. Producers may not sell more than 15,000 barrels of hard cider a year.

SB492 — Establishes temporary or permanent entertainment areas in wet counties where alcohol can be carried and consumed on the public streets and sidewalks.

California 

AB205 — Revises the definition of beer to mean that beer may be produced using “honey, fruit, fruit juice, fruit concentrate, herbs, spices, and other food materials, and adjuncts in fermentation.”

AB377 — A follow-up to the state’s landmark California Homemade Food Act in 2018, the new bill would clarify the implementation process of last year’s bill. The California Home Food Act made it legal for home cooks to operate home-based food production facilities. The law, though, was only enacted if a county’s board of supervisors voted to opt-in to offer the permits. Only one county in California has opted in (Riverside). County health officials are avoiding singing on the bill because of potential food safety risks. 

AB619 — Permits temporary food vendors at events to serve customers in reusable containers rather than disposable servingware. The “Bring Your Own Bill” also clarifies existing health code, allowing customers to bring their own reusable containers to restaurants for take-out.

AB792 — Establishes a minimum level of recycled content (50%) in plastic beverage bottles by 2035. The world’s strongest recycling requirement, the law would help reduce litter and boost demand for manufacturers to use recycled plastic materials. 

AB1532 — Adds instructions on the elements of major food allergens and safe handling food practices to all food handler training courses. 

Connecticut

HB5004 — Raises minimum wage to $15 by 2023.

HB6249 — Charges 10 cents for single-use plastic bags by 2021.

HB7424 — Raises sales tax from 6.35% to 7.35% for restaurant meals and prepared foods sold elsewhere, like in a grocery store. Also repeals the $250 biennial business entity tax.

Delaware

HB130 — Bans single-use plastic bags by 2021.

SB105 — Raises minimum wage to $15 by 2024.

HB125 — Facilitates growth and expansion of craft alcoholic beverage companies, raising amount of manufactured beer to 6 million barrels. 

Florida

SB82 — Prohibits a municipality from regulating vegetable gardens on residential properties. 

Idaho

HB134 — Regulates where beer and wine can be served, now including public plazas.

HB151 — Charges licensing fees for temporary food establishments based on the number of days open. Fees will gradually increase through 2022. 

Illinois

HB3018 — Amends Food Handling Regulation Enforcement Act, requiring a restaurant prominently display signage indicating a guest’s food allergies must be communicated to the restaurant. 

HB3440 — Allows customers to provide their own take-home containers when purchasing bulk items from grocery stores and other retailers. 

HB2675 — An update to state liquor laws, the bill removes hurdles for craft distilleries to operate. Craft distilleries would be allowed to more widely distribute their products themselves, rather than distributing under the state’s three-tier liquor distribution system that separates producers, distributors and retailers.

SB1240 — Imposes a 7 cent tax on each plastic bag at checkout, with 2 cents staying with the retailers. The remaining 5 cents per bag would fix a statewide budget deficit. 

Indiana

HB1518 — Creates a special alcohol permit for the Bottleworks District. The $300 million, 12-acre urban mixed-use development in the Coca-Cola building will serve as a culinary and entertainment hub in downtown Indianapolis.

Iowa

SF618 — Increases the limit on alcohol in beer from 5% to 6.25%.

SF323 — Canned cocktail and premixed drinks served in a metal can, up to 14% alcohol by volume, will now be regulated like beer. 

Kentucky

HB311 — Requires proper labeling of cell-cultured meat products that are lab produced.

HB468 — Expands defined items permitted for sale by home-based processors. 

Louisiana

HR251 — Designates week of September 23-29 as Louisiana Craft Brewer Week.

SB152 — Establishes definition for agriculture products. Prohibits anyone from mislabeling a meat edible to humans. 

SR20 — Designates week of September 3-9th as Louisiana Craft Spirits Week.

Maine

LD289 — Prohibits stores from selling or distributing any disposable food containers that are made entirely or partially of polystyrene foam (Styrofoam). 

LD454 — Provides funding and staffing needed to give local students and nutrition directors the resources needed to purchase and serve locally grown foods. 

LD1433 — Bans two toxic, industrial chemicals (phthalates and PFAS) from food packaging. Maine becomes first state in the nation to ban the two chemicals. 

LD1532 — Bans all single-use plastic bags in the state. Law will be enacted by April 2020, at which time shoppers can pay 5 cents for a plastic bag. Maine is the fourth state to pass a ban, joining California, New York and Hawaii.

LD1761 — Increases amount of barrels craft beer and hard cider manufacturers can produce in a year. The cap increased from 50,000 gallons to 930,000 gallons (approximately 30,000) barrels. The law also makes it easier for a small brewery to get out of a contract with a large distributor.

Maryland

SB596 — Defined mead as a beer for tax purposes.

HB1010 — Updates state beer laws by increasing taproom sales, production capabilities, self-distribution limits and hours of operation. Known as the Brewery Modernization Act, the law is aimed to create jobs and increase economic impact.

HB1080 — No restrictive franchise law provisions for brewers that produce 20,000 barrels a year or less.

HB1301 — Sales tax will be collected on Maryland buyers from online sellers, helping small businesses compete with online retailers. 

Massachusetts

HB4111 — Raises minimum wage by 75 cents a year until it reaches $15 in 2023.

Michigan

HB4959 — Gives state Liquor Control Commission the power to seize beer, wine, mixed spirit and mixed wine drinks, in order to inspect for compliance with the state’s extraordinarily detailed and complex “liquor control” regulatory and license regime. Bill also repeals a one-year residency requirement imposed on applicants for a liquor wholesaler license, after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a similar Tennessee law as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.   

HB4961 — Prohibit licensed liquor manufacturers from requiring licensed wholesalers to give the manufacturer records related to the distribution of different brands, employee compensation or business operations that are not directly related to the distribution of the maker’s brands. 

SB0320 — Eliminates mandate that businesses with a liquor license must post a regulatory compliance bond with the state. 

Minnesota

HF1733 — Updates the state’s omnibus agriculture policy law, including: create a custom-exempt food handlers license for those handling products not for sale; extend the state’s Organic Advisory Task Force by five years; allow the agriculture department to waive farm milk storage limits is the case of hardship, emergency, or natural disaster, and modify milk/dairy labelling requirements; modify labelling for cheese made with unpasteurized milk; expand the agriculture department’s power to restrict food movement after an emergency declaration; modify eligibility and educational requirements for beginning farmer loans and tax credits.

Mississippi

SB2922 — Prohibits labeling non-meat products as meat, like animal cultures, plants and insects. 

Montana

HB84 —  Changes tax on wine to 27 cents per liter, and a tax on hard cider at 3.7 cents per liter.

SB358 — Raises alcohol license fee for resorts from $20,000 to $100,000 each. 

Nebraska

LR13 — Establish and enforce definitions for plant-based milk and dairy. Proper product labeling would be enforced for milk and dairy food products that are “truthful, not misleading, and sufficient to different non-dairy derived beverages and food products.” 

Nevada

SB345 — Authorizing pubs and certain wineries to transfer certain malt beverages and wine in bulk to an estate distillery; authorizing a wholesale dealer of liquor to make such a transfer; authorizing an estate distillery to receive malt beverages and wine in bulk for the purpose of distillation and blending; revising when certain spirits that are received or transferred in bulk are subject to taxation.

New Hampshire

HB598 — Establish a commission to study beer, wine, and liquor tourism in New Hampshire. The commission will specifically develop a plan for tourism, including establishing tourist liquor trails with signage along the highway, suggest changes to liquor laws that would enhance tourist experiences at state wineries, breweries and liquor manufacturers and suggest how to allow a “farm to table” dinner featuring New Hampshire produced food items and local alcoholic beverages. 

HB642 — Defining ciders with alcohol content greater than 6% (but no more than 12%) as specialty beers. 

New Jersey

A15 — Raises the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, raising in $1 increments every year.

SB1057 —  Establishes a loan program for capital expenses for vineyards and wineries in New Jersey.  

New Mexico

SB149 — Change name of Alcohol and Gaming commission to Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.  

SB413 –Allows breweries to: sell beer at 11 a.m. on Sundays; have private celebration permits for events like weddings and graduation parties; no minimum standards (50 barrels a year or 50 percent of all sales coming from beer brewed on site) for businesses to hold a small brewer license; eliminate excise tax, with breweries paying $.08 per gallon on the first 30,000 barrels produced.

A new grant by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to the University of California at Davis will fund training and education for consumers around one of the most confusing grocery offerings — fermented fruits and vegetables.

“There’s a general need to educate the consumer on what fermented foods are — and they currently don’t have that education,” says Maria Marco, professor in Food Science and Technology at UC Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board member). “A definition and resources will help them be more empowered consumers and be more aware of what they’re eating. There’s a need — from kids to physicians. People need to know what these foods are.”

The grant will also fund research on the fundamental properties of fermented fruits and vegetables. Food scientists at UC Davis will study the microbial contents, characterizing the fermented foods. 

The 2019 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) funds 69 projects focusing on specialty crops grown in California. Grant recipients range from organizations, government entities and colleges and universities. The projects must specifically focus on increasing the sales of specialty crops through the “California Grown” identity. UC Davis received $213,051 for the grant titled: “Expanding Education and Knowledge of Fermented Fruits and Vegetables.” 

“California has an important role in the U.S. because such a large number of the United States’ crops are grown here,” Marco said. “We’re the fruit bowl, the salad bowl here in the U.S.”

Of the $72.4 million awarded nationwide, California led the nation in funding with $22.9 million. The California Department of Agriculture will oversee the projects.

Fermentation Education

Core to the grant is fermentation education. UC Davis will work with Master Food Preservers across the state, training them in fermentation. The Master Food Preserver is a community volunteer program available to any individual interested in food preservation. They take a series of extensive, in-depth courses. After earning certification, they can teach the public about food preservation.

“These Master Food Preservers are getting a lot of questions lately about making fermented foods at home,” adds Marco. By providing fermentation classes to the Master Food Preservers, “we’re extending knowledge and providing information on the science of fermented foods.”

“When people start to understand the science behind the food, what the microbes are doing, that engages the public in a way based on science rather than on feeling. That will help the food producers in the end. A more informed public helps elevate their product. It shows their product is different from something just pickled with acid.

Citizen Science

Education and training will be supported by up-to-date research. This research, performed in UC Davis’ Marco lab in the Food Science & Technology department, will also be funded by SCBGP money.

“We’ll be looking at microbial contents of crops and the metabolites that they make,” Marco added. “Characterizing those foods to provide more knowledge on what’s there, it’s a move forward to determining how fermented foods can be healthy for us.”

Few studies are available that examine how fermented foods benefit or alter human health. Though fermented food research in the Marco Lab won’t involve humans, it will provide a scientific base that could evolve into a human study. 

“This is important because there’s a lot of interest in this type of food and beverage. You see a lot more of these products available on the supermarket shelves. There is also an interest to be making more food at home. And there’s generally an idea that these foods are first of all tasty, but they could help our health in many, many ways. There is that belief. And there’s a risk — if these things are not made properly or if there’s some conditions where people should limit their fermented food intake. So there’s good, but if these things are not made properly there can be food safety risks.”

Food Processors

Grant research will benefit commercial processors, too. UC Davis will provide “new or improved methods for fermented food processors.” 

Consistency and scale are a challenge for fermented food producers because of the live bacteria. 

“Microbes have a mind of their own,” Marco said. “A lot of these foods are not originated with mass production in mind. They are usually made in small quantities. So when you scale up, it becomes an issue of quality and consistency. How do you make something that’s usually done in small quantities and sell across the country in large quantities?”

By: American Olive Oil Producers Association

The American Olive Oil Producers Association and Deoleo, the world’s largest producer of olive oil, submitted a citizen petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to adopt science-based, enforceable standards for olive oil.

“Buying quality extra virgin olive oil is hard, but not because there aren’t quality products on supermarket shelves. It’s because there are just no rules to stop bad actors from misrepresenting what they’re selling,” said Adam Englehardt, Chairman of the American Olive Oil Producers Association.

“It was in this vacuum that California adopted a state-based grading and labeling standard in 2014. Family farms like mine supported those regulations because it allowed growers and producers a real opportunity to compete. A half-decade later our state is known around the world for its commitment to quality,” said Englehardt.

The new standards for olive oil, which FDA would be empowered to promulgate after a final rule pending a public comment period, would mark the first time the federal government has regulated the category. Citizen petitions for Standards Of Identity have resulted previously in the adoption of regulations for a variety of other food products.

Stakeholders involved are confident that the petition demonstrates the need to adopt the proposed science-based olive oil standards to provide honest and fair dealings in the interest of consumers while promoting a vibrant and competitive industry.

“We believe consumers have the right to know what they’re buying, but the absence of an enforceable regulatory environment makes this difficult,” said Ignacio Silva, President and CEO of Deoleo. “The petition provides an incredible opportunity to improve quality across the category and most importantly, it will restore consumer trust in olive oil. We support science-based grading standards because we’re committed to quality. It’s just that simple.”

A 2015 investigation by the National Consumers League into olive oil mislabeling found six of eleven national brands had misrepresented quality grades to consumers. A separate, four-year audit of the category between 2015 and 2019 found half of all products available to consumers today failed to meet international quality standards.

Consumers deserve to know what they are buying and should be confident that they are receiving the value and health benefits that correspond with the quality grade of olive oil they desire. The clear definition of grades set forth in the petition for extra virgin, virgin and olive oil do this and allow US consumers to choose a suitable price point to meet their preferences.

The specialty chocolate market is growing, and research by the University of Copenhagen Department of Food Science found that fermentation conditions affect chocolate flavor. Different fermentation techniques changes the composition and activity of the microorganisms present on the cocoa beans. “Our research confirms this and we have also learned how to fine tune the cocoa by fine tuning the process itself, which means that you can get a higher quality out of your raw materials if you understand these processes,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen, a professor in the food science departments at the University of Copenhagen. He adds: “…findings show that the treatment the cocoa receives after the harvest is at least as important for the quality and flavour as the genetics of the cocoa. Where the cocoa was grown also has some significance. By varying the conditions during fermentation, we can therefore also reasonably predict the final taste, which provides good opportunities for high-end producers in particular to develop chocolate with different flavours and scents.”

Read more (University of Copenhagen

An alcohol policy expert calls for an end to antiquated alcohol excise tax laws, which are unfairly penalizing kombucha producers across the country. Though kombucha only has trace amounts of alcohol (generally below the 0.5% alcoholic beverage threshold), it is “nearly impossible for kombucha producers to control the entire supply chain,” writes Jarrett Dieterle, Director of Commercial Freedom for R Street Institute and the author of forthcoming book “Drink For Your Country.” If not properly refrigerated once it’s left the manufacturer for distribution, kombucha will continue to ferment and raise the alcohol level. Dieterle said it’s unfair to make kombucha makers pay fines of more than $10,000 when they can’t control how the drink is stored once it enters the supply chain. Protecting kombucha, he says, should be a priority for federal lawmakers.

Read more (Washington Examiner

The yogurt Los Angeles Times calls “the best yogurt in America” was forced out of California in 2011. White Moustache, which sells Greek and Persian yogurts with seasonal fruit common in Iranian cuisine added, moved to Brooklyn in 2012 after California Department of Food & Agriculture shut them down. According to California state law, making a milk-based product in a facility separate from the facility where the milk was pasteurized is illegal. Though White Moustache founder Homa Dashtaki produces her famous yogurt in New York, she now sells it in California — Manhattan’s brand of Eataly opened a Los Angeles store, and Dashtaki’s family members oversee production for the West Coast store.

Read more (The Los Angeles Times) 

Should a fermented food process need a patent? PepsiCo has filed a patent to ferment oat flour and dairy milk together. PepsiCo-owned Quaker Oats is creating a “spoonable or drinkable” clean-label product comparable to yogurt. The process involves co-fermenting a grain, dairy and a set of metabolites. This patent is unique because, while there are existing food products that combine unfermented and fermented dairy and grains, none co-ferment grain and dairy at the same time. In their application, PepsiCo notes that consumers are increasingly consuming fermented food products for health benefits.

Read more (World Intellectual Property Organization)

Brewers may finally get a break on a costly tax levied against them since 1791. Bipartisan lawmakers in both the U.S. House and Senate are backing legislation that would permanently reform taxes on brewers, winemakers, distillers and alcohol importers.

The bill – called the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) – reduces the federal excise tax on alcoholic beverages. It lowers tax rates for beer, wine and other fermented spirits, like cider. Small brewers save on average $80 million a year without the extra tax.

“Taxes are the single most expensive ingredient in beer, costing more than the labor and raw materials combined,” writes the Beer Institute, a trade organization. “If all the taxes levied on the production, distribution and retailing of beer are added up, they amount to more than 40 percent of the retail price.”

Alcohol excise taxes were the first tax on a domestic product by the U.S. government, and one of the government’s first revenue sources. First collected in 1791, the taxes led to the infamous Whiskey Rebellion tax protest. The purpose of the tax was to help war debt from the Revolutionary War.

Today, though, the government still taxes goods like alcohol and tobacco as part of the “sin tax” logic. Such goods are considered harmful, as alcohol and tobacco consumption is linked to heavy healthcare costs, some paid by taxpayers. Excessive alcohol consumption causes 88,000 deaths a year, an estimated economic impact of $249 billion.

In 2017, the first version of the CBMTRA was passed, under a two-year provision that will expire at the end of 2019. That legislation amended tax law, including:

  • For smaller domestic brewers producing fewer than 2 million barrels a year: Reduce federal excise tax from $7 per barrel to $3.50 per barrel for the first 60,000 barrels.
  • For all other brewers and beer imports: Reduce federal excise tax from $18 a barrel to $16 a barrel on the first 6 million barrels
  • For large brewers with a barrelage over 6 million: Federal excise tax kept at current $18 a barrel.

Brewers, lobbyists and trade associations are pushing for the tax reduction to remain permanent. They point to the huge economic impact the alcohol industry has on the U.S. economy. The U.S. beer industry alone created more than 2.19 million jobs that paid more than $101 billion in wages and benefits in 2018. And, with the increasing popularity of craft brewing, those numbers are rising.

“The craft brewing industry can be found in nearly every Congressional District in the U.S. and contributes more than 500,000 jobs, including an additional 15,000 directly added at small breweries just last year, showcasing the positive momentum supported by temporary provisions,” said Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association. “The industry is responsible for contributing more than $76.2 billion to the U.S. economy and is a success story for American industry.”

The wine industry, meanwhile, supported 1.73 million jobs that paid more than $75.7 billion in wages in 2017. Though the cider industry doesn’t have specific numbers on jobs, the cider market grew faster in 2018 than the beer, wine or spirits industry.

“Many of our members are small producers with direct investment in agriculture here in the United States,” said Paul Vander Heide, president of the United States Association of Cider Makers. “This will provide them additional security for their families and capital to invest in growth opportunities for their business.”

After the CBMTRA enactment in 2017, 99 percent of small brewers saw a 50 percent reduction of their federal excise tax. A survey by the Brewers Association found those savings sparked a variety of economic gains for the craft brewing industry:

  • 73% of breweries are purchasing new equipment, upgrading their tasting rooms and breweries, moving to new buildings, etc.
  • 53% of breweries are hiring new employees
  • 39% are increasing their employee benefits by raising pay, offering insurance and expanding vacation time
  • 21% are increasing their charitable contributions
  • 58% are doing two or more of the above-mentioned actions

Added Bobby Koch, president and CEO of Wine Institute:The savings will allow wineries across America – most of which are small, family-owned businesses – to hire new employees, upgrade equipment, and invest in the future growth of their wineries.”

Information and updates on the bill can be found on the Congress website. The bill was introduced by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin, Mike Kelly, R-Pennsylvania, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon and Roy Blunt, R-Missouri.

A salmonella, E. coli or botulism outbreak can destroy a food brand. Entrepreneurs must be vigilante about food safety, understanding their suppliers, copackers and labels.

Linda Harris, the department chair for the Food Science & Technology Department at the University of California, Davis, shared advice for new food producers to safely launch a business. Harris spoke with her UC Davis colleagues during an education session at Natural Products Expo West. Fermented products, which undergo unconventional processing, are not exempt from food safety measures. Harris emphasized putting “raw” on a label doesn’t protect a brand from food regulations.

“What I would caution someone who would be putting raw on their label is, first of all, understand what you mean by the word raw,” Harris said. “Having raw on your label doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to do the hazard analysis for your product. If a pathogen is a significant hazard, you still have to control for it. … It doesn’t get you off the hook by putting ‘raw’ on the label.”

Recalls as Cautionary Examples

Harris jokes she specializes in being a downer. As a food microbiologist, she shares cautionary examples of brands responsible for food poisoning. Food companies ask Harris for advice on how to maneuver food safety regulations, and Harris admits she still has to look up regulations because they are so complicated.

“You must understand how to control your hazards,” Harris said. “For some entrepreneurs, some smaller processors, that’s been a bit of a challenge to do because.”

She shared the example of the mystery green powder. Many food producers use green powders to make their product – but Harris says brands need to understand the ins and outs of their ingredients. Testing alone will not deal with vulnerabilities. Companies need to ask questions, like: Does the supplier label exactly what’s in the ingredient? If it’s labeled, is it accurate? What processes are used to make the ingredients? Does the process enhance safety? What contaminants are in the ingredients? What kind of controls are in place?

The 2016 Garden of Life RAW Meal Organic Shake & Meal outbreak was one such example. Salmonella in the powder infected 33 people in 23 states. The Salmonella was traced back to a supplier’s ingredient. Can food processors trust each one of their ingredient suppliers, Harris questioned?

“A very challenging thing to do by any strength of the imagination,” she said, especially for a small processor. “How do you know when you’re buying your powders that there aren’t things beyond the Salmonella or the bacteria that I’m concerned about or pesticides or other chemicals or heavy metals that might be present?”

As more natural food brands enter the market, processors are sourcing unique ingredients, many from international suppliers.

“(When) youre not able to see that process or interact with that process, I think that’s a real concern,” Harris adds. “That’s where I see small entrepreneurs being especially vulnerable because they don’t have the power to say ‘I am going to buy 50 pounds of your powder, so I’d like to have a full tour of your facility.’ You lose some of that power compared to being a large manufacturer where millions of dollars are at stake.”

Question Every Step

Harris shared tips for avoiding food safety disasters.

  1. Check with regulators early and often. From USDA and FDA inspectors to state government agencies, Harris said she’s found government regulators are very willing to share feedback on food safety.
  2. Tour supplier and processor facilities. The SoyNut Butter E. coli outbreak of 2017 was another supplier mistake. After 32 people became infected from SoyNut Butter, the brand recalled the product. During their investigation, they found their contract manufacturer was operating in unsanitary conditions. The facility was dusty, equipment hadn’t been cleaned for 15 months and there was no hot water or soap. Harris noted, if the food company simply walked through the facility, they would have quickly seen issues.
  3. Use a copacker. Copackers are food safety experts, and a great option for small companies to avoid safety hazards. Copackers will take a recipe, make the food product and package it. They are the food safety experts, so a new food company doesn’t have to master food safety. Still, Harris warned, tour the copacker facility. “If you think just a small processor is vulnerable to issues with copackers… even major companies can I think get into a lull of not making those checks and not following up to make things are going well,” she said.
  4. Ask lots of questions. Harris advises, if a food brand is putting ingredient or processing trust in another company, be prepared to double check their facilities and healthy claims.

Harris recently had to practice what she preaches. As the department chair, she had to axe the students plan to make vegan ice cream for the university’s Picnic Day. The powder the students found was sourced from a Midwest company who wouldn’t share details on how they eliminate pathogens. So Harris did not give students permission to buy the powder for vegan ice cream.

“If you’re in this area, I think you do need to be able to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” she said. “When you go to your supplier to ask them how are you controlling for these things in the ingredient you’re giving me, that you expect transparency.”

Fermented Products Not Exempt

Fermentation often creates a false air of safety, Harris said. Just because fermentation has a global tradition doesn’t mean fermented foods are all created under safe conditions.

In 2013, The Cultured Kitchen had to recall their cashew cheese after 17 people became infected with Salmonella. Testing found the fermented cashews were the source of the outbreak. The copacker had multiple critical equipment malfunctions, like an uncalibrated thermometer and no kill step.

Fermented food, Harris stresses, are extremely safe. Fermented foods have a long history of safety. But new products and ingredients that are fermented which have historically never been fermented before, makes food safety murky.

For more information on food safety, check out the UC Davis Food Safety website.