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.”
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INVIMA, Colombia’s National Food and Drug Surveillance Institute, released a “sanitary alert” against kombucha. The alert said: “It should be noted that ‘Scoby’ is an ingredient that has not been authorized by INVIMA for use in food and beverages.” INVIMA’s inspections found irregularities detected in locally-produced kombucha, and called out five Colombian and one U.S. kombucha brands for various “health situations,” like using the unapproved phrase “probiotic culture of Kombucha” on the label, conducting unauthorized alcohol fermentation and manufacturing the kombucha at a different address then what was provided to INVIMA. .
Kombucha Brewers International (@kombuchabrewers KBI) released a statement supporting kombucha brewers. The statement reads: “Kombucha is an incredibly safe product to brew at home as well as commercially. As a traditional fermented food, it’s microbial makeup and the organic acids it produces ensures that it is well preserved even without refrigeration. The role of fermented foods far precedes other types of preservation technology such as refrigeration, pasteurization or chemical preservatives. …Colombia has a long history of using fermented foods to provide nutrient dense foods for their native population. Cassava, cacao and maize have all been fermented through traditional processes to create almidón agrio, chicha, champús, masa agria, guarapo and many more.”
Read more (KBI)
CNBC “Suddenly Obsessed” explores how kombucha went from a niche beverage to a massive fermented drink category reaching $500 million in sales. Once only popular among hardcore health enthusiasts, CNBC notes kombucha’s appeal is because of a growing consumer preference for healthier drinks. Bigger brands are entering the kombucha space, though, manipulating the brewing process. Pepsi Co. acquired Kevita kombucha, for example, and now Kevita pasteurizes their kombucha for a longer shelf life.
Read more (CNBC)
A tax on imported French wine and cheese has been delayed until 2021. U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to hold off on potential tariffs until the new year. French products — like Le Creuset Dutch ovens, Hermès handbags, Roquefort cheese and French-made wine — would have been taxed. One wine importer told the news the potential tariffs were the greatest threat to the wine industry since Prohibition. Trump threatened the taxes in retaliation for a tax imposed in France on large American tech firms, such as Facebook and Google.
Read more (Wine Spectator)
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.