Food Safety Pitfalls and Lessons for Fermentation Producers

/ / Legal & Regulatory, Science

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.