Every year, the nation’s 50 state legislatures pass dozens of new laws that have an impact on fermenters. For example, some states amended alcohol laws to allow drink sampling for craft wineries, while others repealed outdated cottage food laws to help small producers operate and more loosened take-out restrictions to help small restaurants survive the pandemic.
Indicative of this year’s focus on the pandemic, laws were introduced but never debated as lawmakers focused on more pressing issues surrounding the coronavirus. The most common new laws passed in 2020 revolved around helping businesses survive — states called special sessions to aid restaurants, stop price gouging of high-demand products and provide emergency grants to small businesses.
Read on for key food, beverage and food service laws passed this year, most taking effect in 2021.
AB82 — Prohibits an establishment with an alcohol license from employing an alcohol server without a valid alcohol server certification.
AB3139 — Establishments with alcoholic beverages licenses who had premises destroyed by fire or “any act of God or other force beyond the control of the licensee” can still carry on business at a location within 1,000 feet of the destroyed premise for up to 180 days.
HB 237 — Eliminates old requirements that movie theaters selling alcohol must have video cameras in each theater, and that an employee must pass through each theater during a movie showing.
HB275 — Permits beer gardens to allow leashed dogs on licensed outdoor patios.
HB349 — Permits any restaurant, brewpub, tavern or taproom with a valid on-premise license to sell alcoholic beverages for take-out or drive through food service, so long as the cost for the alcohol did not exceed 40% of the establishment’s total sales transactions.
SR84 — Creates a Restaurant Reopening Task Force to help restaurants in Hawaii safely reopen that were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SR94 — Urges restaurants to adopt recommended best practices and safety guidelines developed by the United States Food and Drug Administration and National Restaurant Association in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
HB343 — Amends existing law to require licensing to store and handle wine as a wine warehouse.
HB575 — Allows sampling of alcohol products at liquor stores, which was formerly forbidden under law.
SB1223 — Eliminates obsolete restrictions on food products, to match federal standards. It repeals requiring extra labels on some imported food products, and repeals using enriched flour in bread baking.
HB2682 — Amends Liquor Control Act of 1934. Allows a cocktail or mixed drink placed in a sealed container at the retail location to be sold for off-premises consumption if specified requirements are met. Prohibits third-party delivery services from delivering cocktails or mixed drinks.
HB4623 — Amends Food Handling Regulation Enforcement Act, regulating that public health departments provide a certificate for cottage food operations, which must be displayed at all events where the licensee’s food is being sold.
HB2238 — Amends code regarding food stands operated by a minor. Bans a municipality from enforcing a license permit or fee for a minor under the age of 18 to sell or distribute food at a food stand.
HB420 — Implements Food Safety Modernization Act, authorizing a department representative to enter a covered farm or farm eligible for inspection.
SB99 — Amends alcohol laws for state’s distillers, brewers and small wineries. Eliminates the sunset on local precinct elections to grant distilleries, and allows distillers to sell other distiller’s products.
HR17 — Allows third-party delivery services to deliver alcohol.
HB136 — Makes adulterating a food product by intentional contamination a crime.
SB455 — Increases the size of containers of high-alcoholic beverages.
SB508 — Gives restaurants protection from lawsuits involving COVID-19. The public will be unable to sue restaurants for COVID-19-related deaths or injuries, as long as the restaurant complies with state, federal and local regulations about the virus.
LD1167 — Encourages state institutions to serve Maine food and Maine food products, increasing the visibility of the state’s local food producers.
LD1884 — Amends current laws regarding businesses that hold dual liquor licenses, which authorized retailers to sell wine for consumption both on- and off-premise. Retailers with the dual license can now sell with just one employee at least 21 years of age present, and adds that wine can be sold for take-out if food is part of the transaction.
HB1017 — Allows cottage food businesses to put their phone number and business ID on their food label, rather than their address as currently required by the Maryland Department of Health.
SB118 — Expands definition of “alcohol production” and “agricultural alcohol production.” The new definitions aim to give Maryland farmers and producers the ability to sell beer, wine and spirits to increase agritourism.
SB2812 — Expands alcohol take-out and delivery options during COVID-19 pandemic. Allows restaurants to sell mixed drinks in sealed containers alongside other take-out and delivery food orders.
HB5343 — Revises regulations on brewpubs and microbreweries, increasing the quantity of beer a microbrewer is permitted to deliver to a retailer during a year from 1,000 barrels to 2,000 barrels.
HB5345 — Amends the Michigan Liquor Control Code to delete the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) $6.30 tax levied on each barrel of beer manufactured and sold in Michigan.
HB5354 — Amends the Michigan Liquor Control Code to delete the requirement that a brewpub cannot sell beer in Michigan unless it provides for each brand or type of beer sold a label that truthfully describes the content of each container.
SB711 — Establishes new limited production brewer license for microbreweries at cost of $1,000 for license.
HB5356 — Amends the Michigan Liquor Control Code to ban the required $13.50 cent-per-liter tax on all wine containing 16% or less of alcohol by volume sold in Michigan.
HB5 — Authorizes emergency, small-business grants and loan funding for businesses affected by COVID-19.
HB4599 — Extends period of mediation for Minnesota farmers suffering economic difficulties to keep their farm.
HB326 — Amends outdated code to increase the maximum annual gross sales for a cottage food operation (from $20,000 to $35,000) before the producer would need to pay food establishment permit fees. Authorizes a cottage food operation to advertise products over the internet.
AB2371 — Requires large generators of food waste (like restaurants and supermarkets) to recycle food garbage rather than send it to incinerators or landfills.
AB3865 — Limits return of food from retail food stores during a public emergency.
SB864 — Prohibits sale of single-use plastic carryout bags, single-use paper carryout bags and polystyrene foam food service products, and limits single-use plastic straws.
SB1591 — Allows alcoholic beverages to be consumed from open containers in the Atlantic City Tourism District.
SB2437 — Limits service fees charged to restaurants by third-party food takeout and delivery applications during COVID-19 pandemic.
SB3 — Enacts the Small Business Recovery Act of 2020, which provides loans for small businesses suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.
SB8225 — Authorizes issuing a retail license for on-premise consumption of food and beverage within 200 feet of a church, synagogue or other place of worship.
AB8956 — Allows a licensed brewery or farm brewery to provide no more than four beer samples not exceeding four fluid ounces each.
SB1472 — Requires hospitals to offer plant-based food options to patients upon request.
SB7013 — Authorizes the manufacture and sale of ice cream or other frozen desserts made with liquor.
SB290 — The Alcoholic Beverage Control Regulatory Reform Bills, it allows distilleries the same serving privileges as wineries and craft breweries and reduces regulation on out-of-state sales.
HB160 — Aid for the restaurant industry to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, the bill doubles the maximum number of Designated Outdoor Refreshment Areas (DORAs) that can be created in a municipality or township. Also allows Ohio’s small wineries to sell prepackaged food without regulation from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, creates bottle limits for micro-distilleries and permits license holders to sell alcoholic ice cream.
HB4963 — Amends state alcohol code, allows licensed retailers to give wine samples in excess of 16% alcohol, cordials or distilled spirits, as long as they don’t exceed a total of three liters a year.
SB993 — Amends state alcohol code to allow a permitted winery to be eligible for a special permit to sell wine at off-premise events. Also increases the amount of beer a brewery can sell to an individual per day for off-premise consumption.
HB1073 — Authorize special event alcohol licenses for full-service restaurant licensees.
HB1081 — Allows colleges to teach brewing beer and wine classes on South Dakota campuses to students age 21 or older. Brewing must be held off campus as the education institution is not deemed a licensed manufacturer. Any distilled spirits, malt beverage, or wine produced under this section may only be consumed for classroom instruction or research and may not be donated or sold.
SB2423 — Allows alcohol sales at the Memphis Zoo.
SB1123 — Encourages farmers who produce raw milk to complete a safe milk-handling course.
HB134 — Legalizes the sale of raw butter and raw cream in Utah;
HB232 — An agri-tourism bill that allows farms and ranches to host events that include food that would not need to be prepared in a commercial kitchen. Farmers must apply for a food establishment permit to use their private home kitchen.
HB399 — Changes to the Alcohol Beverage Control Act, prohibits advertising that promotes the intoxicating effects of alcohol or emphasizes the high alcohol content of an alcoholic product.
HB5010 — The COVID-19 Cultural Assistance Grant Program, which appropriates $62 million for struggling arts, cultural and recreational organizations and businesses across the state.
HB6006 — In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the bill amends the Alcohol Beverage Control Act, delaying the expiration date of the retail licenses set to expire in 2020 for places selling alcohol. Also permits alcoholic beverage licensees at international airports to change locations if needed.
SB351 — A coronavirus relief bill which authorizes $36 million for agriculture and forestry sectors.
HB2217 — An update to Cottage Food Law eliminates the requirement that a home address must be put on a food label.
HB2412 — Increases amount of additional retail licenses for a domestic brewery or microbrewery from two to four, and directs health department to adopt rules allowing brewery owners to allow dogs on brewery premise
SB5006 — Allows sale of wine by microbrewery license holders.
SB5323 — A bill eliminating single-use, plastic carry-out bags
SB5549 — Modernizing resident distillery marketing and sales restrictions. Allows distilleries to sell products off-premise, similar to breweries and wineries.
SB6091 — Continues work on the Washington Food Policy Forum, including support for small farms and increasing the availability of food grown in the state.
HB4388 — Removes outdated restrictions on alcohol advertising, limiting the Alcohol Beverage Control Commissioner’s authority to restrict advertising in certain advertising mediums, such as at sporting events and highway billboards.
HB4524 — Making the entire state “wet,” permitting the off-premises sale of alcoholic liquors in every county and municipality in the state.
HB4560 — Permits licensed wine specialty shops to sell wine with a gift basket by telephonic, electronic, mobile or web-based wine ordering. Establishes requirements for lawful delivery.
HB 4697 — Removes restriction that a mini-distillery use raw agricultural products originating on the same premises
HB4882 — Allows unlicensed wineries not currently licensed or located in West Virginia to provide limited sampling and temporary, limited sales for off-premise consumption at fairs, festivals and one-day nonprofit events “in hopes that such wineries would eventually obtain a permanent winery or farm winery license in West Virginia.”
HB1038 — Bans customers from returning food items during a health pandemic or emergency, dissuading people from stocking up on too many supplies.
SB83 — Increases sales volume of alcohol by retail stores from four liters per transaction to any quantity.
SB170 — Allows minors to operate temporary food stands without a permit or license.
HB82 — Authorizes a microbrewery to operate at more than one location. The local licensing authority may require the payment of an additional permit fee not to exceed $100.00.
HB84 — Authorizes the sale of certain homemade food items that do not require time or temperature control. These include but are not limited to:
but is not limited to, jams, uncut fruits and vegetables, pickled vegetables, hard candies, fudge, nut mixes, granola, dry soup mixes excluding meat based soup mixes, coffee beans, popcorn and baked goods that do not include dairy or meat frosting or filling or other potentially hazardous frosting or filling;
“non-potentially hazardous” (no dairy, quiches, pizzas, frozen doughs, foods that require refrigeration and cooked meat, cooked vegetables and cooked beans). Allows someone other than the producer to sell the food, as long as food is not sold in a retail location or grocery store where similar food items are displayed or sold. Food must be labeled with “food was made in a home kitchen, is not regulated or inspected and may contain allergens.”
HB158 — Allows microbreweries to make malt beverages at multiple locations rather than one as deemed in current law.
Creating a HACCP plan — a management system to control food preparation risk — can overwhelm food producers. But Charlie Kalish, food safety consultant and trainer, emphasizes HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) is vital to food safety.
“This is just as important as trying to understand, when I ferment things, why do I ferment? What are the things that get you excited about why you get the flavors that you get or the textures that you get (when you ferment)? The food safety thing, it’s really going to help you in the long run if you approach it with the same excitement because, if you don’t, it’s going to be a lot of work and it will drag you down,” Kalish says during the recent TFA webinar Introduction to HACCP. “I see a lot of people get bitter about (HACCP). ‘It’s such a drain on my resources and what I do!’ But it can help your product get better, it can help you get into new markets. And it is a different language, a different world. Even if you’re not going to get a PhD to understand the basic science underlying the mechanisms, having a strong control of HACCP, food safety, what the expectations are, it’s really going to help you.”
HACCP was originally created for the space program in the ‘60s. NASA needed a high level of assurance that food was going to be safe during missions in space, but traditional food models did not have enough preventive food safety controls. That plan was later adopted by the USDA and FDA to regulate food products.
“HACCP shifted the focus away from recalling food and trying to do damage control with outbreaks to preventing those things from happening in the first place,” Kalish says. “HACCP, in summary, is a systematic approach where we consider all of our ingredients, we consider every process step from when we receive our raw materials or ingredients all the way to the shipping out of our final product, it considers all reasonable and foreseeable hazards.”
Kalish points out HACCP controls for things with a high probability of occuring, like an E. Coli outbreak in lightly fermented food. And a good HACCP plan begins with a solid foundation, basic practices like regular hand washing, sanitizing surfaces and maintaining a comprehensive food safety employee training program.
“Common sense is an excellent guide to get you started for food safety, but I would further suggest to learn as much as you can: the science of the system you’re working with, the microbiology, pH, what it is, how you measure it,” says Fred Breidt, PhD, a microbiologist with the Agriculture Research Division of the USDA. Breidt joined Kalish during the webinar along with moderator Dave Ehreth, president of Sonoma Brinery; both are TFA advisory board members.
Luckily for fermenters, fermentation is a critical control point. In one study on kimchi by Breidt and his USDA colleagues, they found pH level is critical for food safety, a factor controlled by fermentation.
Though the internet can be a wonderful resource to find information on food safety, “you have to be judicious about your sources,” Breidt says. Kalish says to look for guidance from government sources, scientific literature, process authorities, university extension specialists, industry groups and publications or consultants.
Food producers need to budget for HACCP in their financial plan, Kalish advises. Ehreth agrees, and encourages producers still unsure of the process to pay a professional for help “to understand what potential biological hazards could be in that jar of food.”
“The modern food manufacturer is not only a food manufacturer, he is a protector and is entering into a bond of trust with his customers. And that bond of trust says ‘If you buy what I make, you’re not going to die as a result,” Ehreth adds. Though he notes it sounds like extreme advice, it’s a necessity for food producers to keep that creed at the forefront of their production.
There’s a void in scientific knowledge of fermented and pickled vegetables, and scientists are just starting to scratch the surface.
“We have a wealth of chemical compositions that we still don’t fully understand,” says Dr. Ilenyz Pérez-Díaz, PhD, a microbiologist with the USDA-ARS. Perez-Diaz presented on “Development of Pickling Technologies & Products” during a webinar hosted by TFA. “I honestly think there is still a lot to do in regards to the richness of the biological functions that are present in these systems. Every vegetable is different. … It will be fantastic to be able to comprehensively understand what’s really there and how we can use it for the benefit of not only processing but also for the benefit of human health.”
The purpose of the USDA-ARS is to find solutions for agricultural challenges, domestically and globally. In 2019, the 8,000 employees of the USDA-ARS researched 660 agricultural projects, filed 85 new patents, issued 65 new patents, received 51 new licenses and wrote 3,816 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Pérez-Díaz is assigned to the food science and market quality and handling research unit. There the team develops state-of-the-art, science-backed methods that improve the post-harvest processes, food preservation, food quality and safety and, ultimately, introducing nutritious products into the food system.
“What I love about the research that she’s doing is that pickling and fermentation are these ancient, traditional technologies that people have been using for hundreds and hundreds of years, and she’s really thinking about ways that we can advance those technologies using all the amazing sequencing and all the microbiology we have today,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD, associate professor of biology at Tufts University, and the TFA Advisory Board member who moderated the webinar.
Pérez-Díaz shared the USDA’s latest technologies to reduce food waste, lessen environmental impacts, improve water/energy demand and add more health value to preserved vegetables. Here are highlights from the research presented, focused on addressing two key problems:
Eliminate Salt in Cucumber Fermentation
PROBLEM: Sodium chloride is essential to fermentation, but the salt-rich (and sometimes preservative-filled) brine shipped from overseas producers can get into local freshwater supplies. There are no growers of small cucumbers (gherkins) in the U.S., so food projects that require small cucumbers must use overseas produce. But, in order for the cucumbers to be transported, they must be fermented or pickled. High amounts of salt, acid and sometimes preservatives are added, and these potentially can damage the water supply.
SOLUTION: USDA-ARS tested fermenting pickles using three popular spices: dill, cinnamon and mustard seed. But, though salt was reduced or eliminated, “the indigenious microbiota is always there,” Pérez-Díaz explains. “The salt is modulating the activity within this population. It tends to favor the lactic acid bacteria. But what I’ve learned is it is not the main factor modulating that microbiota. The ph and the production of that lactic acid and or acetic acid is really the factor in excluding the non desirable microorganisms and favoring the fermentative microbiota.”
Reduce Food Waste by Creating Foods
PROBLEM: In the U.S., between 30-70% of fresh vegetable produce is wasted. “Those are alarming numbers,” says Pérez-Díaz. “Even though they are estimates, it is necessary to look at ways to resolve the impact of such waste.”
SOLUTION: The USDA developed small-scale fermentation systems for use in restaurants, farmer’s markets and grocery stores. These vessels make fermenting excess food more manageable by allowing easy fermentation of smaller batches.
“We can convert what was waste or surplus or defective vegetables into a value-added product,” Pérez-Díaz says. “It will be a probiotic product, it will be fermented vegetables auxiliaries that can be used as sources of flavor, colors, ingredients in a number of recipes or even dehydrated for different applications.” [This project was near completion before the pandemic and is expected to pick-up soon.]
Fermentation, she emphasized, is needed to sustain a modern food system.
“These fermentations, if applied properly, they are very powerful eliminating the organisms that are not desirable or the organisms that are not of health significance,” Pérez-Díaz says. “I think fermentation will truly be an important component as we move forward to that new era.”
Just because vegetables were fermented does not make them immune to harmful bacteria like E. coli. Though fermentation improves food safety, the quality of the raw vegetable before it’s fermented is extremely important.
“The issue of fermentation safety is one that comes up a lot. People are getting excited about the fermentation world these days, fermentation is increasing in popularity…(but) the wheels can fall off if you’re not careful,” says Fred Breidt, PhD, a USDA microbiologist. Breidt spoke during a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association, “The Science Behind the Safety of Fermented Vegetables.” “The moral of the story: if the vegetables were safe to eat before you ferment them, they’re going to be safe to eat after you ferment them. If they’re not, you’ve got to ferment them for a long time to make sure they’re safe.”
An outbreak of dangerous bacteria in fermented vegetables, “it’s going to be pretty rare that that happens,” Breidt stresses. But, without proper sanitation protocol and vegetable quality control, pathogenic “bad guys” can flourish, like E. coli, salmonella and listeria. E. coli is more common in vegetables because it’s extremely acid resistant, and can survive for long periods of time at low pH levels and cold temperatures.
“Just washing the surface (of the vegetable) isn’t always going to do the trick,” Breidt says. “You don’t have to eat very much to get sick.”
An E. coli outbreak in kimchi made 230 Korean school children sick in 2013. The children, from seven different schools, all ate fermented kimchi made by the same manufacturer.
“If the folks had eaten the cabbage that this kimchi was made out of, they would have gotten sick as well,” Breidt says. “Was the cabbage improved in the sense of maybe it had fewer E. coli on it because of fermentation? Yes. But there was still enough when this was eaten to make a lot of people sick.”
“You can’t rely on salt for safety is the point,” he adds. “It does encourage the lactic acid bacteria and it helps them grow and it will increase overall the safety of your fermentation.”
David Ehreth, president and founder of Alexander Valley Gourmet, parent company of Sonoma Brinery, moderated the webinar. Ehreth first met Breidt when Sonoma Brinery made a few tons of sauerkraut that became infected with yeast. Ehreth says “I called Ghostbusters, and that’s Fred Breidt.” Though yeast is different from a pathogen like E. coli, Ehreth said Sonoma Brinery has managed to control yeast over the years by careful management of production techniques and improved sanitation methods.
To the food and drink industry, regulators can sometimes feel like “the bad guys.” But to scale a fermentation brand, sell artisanal products at a farmers market, or serve dishes with fermented ingredients in a restaurant, producers need regulators to be friends or colleagues, says Jeremy Umansky, owner of Larder Deli and author of “Koji Alchemy.”
“As a fermented food producer, it’s a frustrating and almost difficult, like an intimidatingly difficult place to be in. Because there’s really no great resources of where to start, how to get going, how to do what you’re going to do in the safest manner possible while also maintaining a specific quality standard which is so important for us,” says Umansky. “We need to have open, honest conversation (with regulators). If your local regulators aren’t willing to work with you or just want to shut it down because they don’t understand, go up to the next level. Go up to the county, to your state or even reach out to federal. Because people are producing these foods all over the country, so there is regulation for them.”
Umansky spoke with Drew Anderson, CEO of Cleveland Kitchen, during a Fermentation Association webinar titled “Coping with Regulations (and Regulators).”
When Anderson started Cleveland Kitchen with his brother and brother-in-law, “the regulators didn’t really know how to handle fermented food.” They decided to become close with their representative from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and call her first when they moved to bigger facilities or added onto the facility. “She is fantastic. You involve the regulators into your process.”
“You’ve got to understand, when (regulators) go out, they know people don’t like them, they know they’re the enemy when they walk in that kitchen,” Anderson adds. “So if it’s a pleasure to work with you and they can see that they’re actually helping someone, that always helps. Food is still a people business. I think it’s important to be close.”
“It’s funny because the human race has been doing this for thousands of years and we never worried about it before. But now, in this modern age, everything has to be pasteurized.”
Fermenting was common in America before the 1920s, when electricity and refrigeration became a standard in homes. Today, with current food safety laws, “our regulation is more or less a mess,” Umansky notes.
“Anywhere you go in the world, for the most part, fermented foods are the crux at the root of any cuisine,” Umanksy says. “People have relied on these foods and the methods of making them for so, so long. And it’s interesting now that we have so much fear and intimidation and kind of unknowing about (fermented food) production and how they’re made and if they’re safe or not when we’ve kind of proven that society would not exist as it does if it weren’t for these foods prior to refrigeration.”
Both Cleveland Kitchen and Umansky’s Larder Deli are based in Cleveland. However, because Larder and Cleveland Kitchen produce and sell fermented foods differently, they are regulated by different associations. Larder is overseen by the city health department, and Cleveland Kitchen is overseen by the state health department.
“From locale to locale and oversight body to oversight body, things are different,” he says. “We’re both producing fermented foods, but because of how we’re producing them, where we’re producing them, and where we’re selling them, we have different sets of regulations. Same foods, different sets of regulations. And when you talk to different people, you get different answers.”
“Where is the regulation? It’s a mess. It’s almost impossible to keep up on it,” Umansky says.
There is not a standardized food code in all 50 U.S. states. Rules for retail food production varies from cities, counties and states. At the extreme opposite is Japan, where open-air food markets sell fermented foods with little government oversight over food producers.
“We have to be able to address this issue of there not being cohesion and they’re not being easily accessible information for those of us producing these types of food,” Umansky says. “It begs the question – why haven’t we taken a model from the Japanese or the Chinese? Or Scandinavian cuisine is very, very fermentation forward, Eastern European cuisine. Why haven’t we looked at their regulations?”
HACCP is another regulation setback for fermented food and drink producers. Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) are required plans that monitor food safety. But HACCP requires producers to make one thing the same way all the time. There is no room for variances in ingredients. It works for big, commercial producers.
“For smaller restaurants and craft producers, it’s essentially improbable,” Umansky says.
If there’s a menu change at a restaurant or a new ingredient source for a craft producer, technically a new HACCP plan is required.
Umansky recommends, when filing a HACCP, producers should pick one thing on the menu that will never change or that is always in stock. At Larder, it’s the pastrami sandwich with sauerkraut. Then, when it’s time to meet with a regulator, request someone familiar with craft food and come prepared with a HACCP covering the unchanged menu dish or stocked item.
“Your regulators will be so socked that you’ve already taken that step and they haven’t had to have this conversation with you,” he said. “The great thing is, in non-pasteurized fermented foods, I don’t even think there’s any reported cases of botulism associated with fermented foods. It can’t survive. There’s salt and acid.”
Check out the full video link here.
By: Dr. Miin Chan, BMedSci, MBBS (University of Melbourne)
Good gut health fixes everything! Fermented foods are good for your gut! Fermented foods are a panacea for all that ails you!
As two behemoth trends in science and food – the gut microbiome and fermented foods – collide, messages such as these inundate the public narrative. But do they serve to educate, or confuse?
Everyone has their pet peeve. Mine is the violation of science to sell products and agendas. Intentional or otherwise, poor science communication distorts food literacy. Nutritional research is vulnerable to extreme manipulation, plagued by methodology issues, historical reputation damage and abuse by powerful commercial interests. In this era of rapid dissemination of alternative facts, it is essential to interpret and communicate research in a clear, accurate manner. These narratives guide our community’s daily food choices and thus, impact personal and public health outcomes.
Nuance and doubt are the key drivers of scientific practice; clickbait headlines and definitive language are the bread and butter of modern journalism and advertising. Private enterprise is the worst offender, exaggerating the health benefits of food products with purposeful vagaries and definitive language. Correlation and association in trials become causation. Studies in rodents equate to human health outcomes. The word “may” makes it acceptable to overstate findings or attribute them to unrelated food products. Labels and catchphrases are used loosely; think “probiotics”, “prebiotics” and the very grey “good for your gut health”. As a marketing strategy, many businesses now employ teams of “experts” to validate their claims’ scientific rigour, obscuring the inherent conflict of interest. These tactics serve to plump bottom lines, dodge government regulations that serve public interest, and ultimately, confuse vulnerable consumers.
Just as concerning are journalists, researchers and scientific publications that, in an effort to stay relevant, adopt the same techniques as their commercial counterparts to garner attention. Usually, this entails overblown health benefits. But sometimes it goes the other way.
Let’s look at a recent article published by The Conversation titled: “Kombucha, kimchi and yogurt: how fermented foods could be harmful to your health” (1). By the time it had been republished in The Independent, as well as several other international news outlets, it had morphed into: “Why fermented foods could cause serious harm to your health”. Such headlines instill fear in readers. Headlines are important: research has shown that 59% of links shared on social networks are not clicked on (2); this means that the majority of people share articles without reading past the headlines. These insidious messages bleed into the collective consciousness and impact our attitudes towards food.
Overall, this is a well-written article, providing mostly appropriate references, but the author is an infectious disease expert, not a food scientist or nutrition researcher. To the average lay reader, her non-related credentials give the article clout and credibility. Lurking within the article are problematic false equivalences, misrepresentations and extrapolations used to bulk out the piece.
Bloating is an issue for some consumers but is certainly not “harmful” nor “serious”. Reactions to biogenic amines, including histamine, are highlighted. But the article fails to mention that only 1% of the population (3) have histamine intolerance and even fewer have severe reactions. Why include food borne illness? This is a food safety issue and is not more likely to occur in fermented foods. The author even talks about how probiotics in milk products increase their safety, but then states that “probiotics can fail” leading to “hazardous” outcomes due to bacterial toxins, with no evidence to support this.
Lab-produced probiotic strains are not necessarily the same as those found in fermented foods (4). So it is misleading, in this context, to reference limited case reports of probiotic capsules causing infections in immunocompromised patients. There are no recorded infections due to the ingestion of fermented products, and the majority of people are not immunocompromised.
Last but not least, the author cites antibiotic resistance due to gene transfer from microbes found in fermented foods. The research used to support this looks at particular strains extracted from fermented foods in non-human trials. No evidence is currently available to suggest that such gene transfer occurs when humans ingest fermented food, or that this would promote antibiotic resistance in a clinically significant way. It is irresponsible to include this as a reason why fermented foods may cause harm to human health.
Humans have consumed fermented foods for many human generations. This in itself suggests the safety of fermented foods for the majority of people, and the human clinical trials that have been conducted indicate few side effects, let alone serious ones.
Fear-mongering headlines and articles exploit poor science literacy in the general population. One has to ask, what is the purpose of such articles? Is it simply a matter of publish or perish, a hankering for a sparkly headline that draws attention?
Food is central to every human’s daily life, with long-term effects on their health and wellbeing. Businesses, journalists, government bodies and most of all, scientists, need to recognise their responsibility to create clear nutritional science narratives. Science and food literacy need to be priorities in our education sector. Government bodies, informed by up-to-date research, must better regulate food-related health claims to protect public interest. We must avoid exaggeration of both benefits and harms and introduce nuance into our science communication. Our health depends on it!
Dr. Miin Chan, BMedSci, MBBS (University of Melbourne) As a medical doctor & researcher obsessed with taste, food culture, ferments and nutrition, Miin founded Australia’s first tibicos business, Dr. Chan’s. She helped to create the local wild fermentation industry through products, education, science communication and consultation. Working with farmers’ markets, Slow Food Melbourne and urban agriculture charity Sustain, she has a deep love for all things food, from soil to gut. Engaged in a love affair with microbes, Miin is undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne researching the effects of fermented foods on chronic disease via gut microbiota. @dr.chans @slowferment @gastronomymagic
(1) Mohammed, M. Kombucha, kimchi and yogurt: how fermented foods could be harmful to your health. The Conversation 2019. https://theconversation.com/kombucha-kimchi-and-yogurt-how-fermented-foods-could-be-harmful-to-your-health-126131
(2) Gabielkov M, Ramachandran A, Chaintreau A, et al. Social clicks: what and who gets read on Twitter? ACM SIGMETRICS/ IFIP Performance 2016. Antibes Juan-les-Pins, France (Conference Paper) https://hal.inria.fr/hal-01281190
(3) Maintz L, Novak N. Histamine and histamine intolerance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007; 85(5):1185-1196 https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/85.5.1185
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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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.