From Sea and Fishery to My Belly

LogoI choose my food very carefully. I’m not a foodie; I’m a food advocate. I advocate for food to be transparently produced with the highest ecological and animal welfare standards. I want to make the best choices for the planet and the animals on it. I’ve had the opportunity to research, write or live every aspect of the food production, manufacturing and distribution chain. An attitude of stewarship, from my experience, is best when paired with consideration to human physiology and cultural practices.

For years, I ate a vegan and vegetarian diet. After growing up on a cattle farm and eating an abundance of steaks, roasts and ground beef for the first 17 years of my life, I gradually exited the meat game when I moved away to college. I still remember finishing off that last packet of chicken-flavored ramen. PETA’s seminal shock-umentary “Meet Your Meat” and a growing knowledge of industrial CAFOs were enough to put me off of carnivorousness.

Never one to turn down a challenge, I decided to kick my food-based activism up a notch in grad school. I went full vegan. Pollution from dairy farms and the oddity that humans are the only animal that drink milk beyond infancy, let alone the milk of another species, seemed counterintuitive. But my body reacted instantly. Since all of the information I’d seen on veganism indicated that it was the healthiest thing a human could do for their body, I attributed the onset of acne (which I’d never experienced at the age of 22) to stress from my first desk job, an internship. However, it was likely due to stress on my body from cutting out a source of nutrients that my ancestors had evolved to utilize.

About eight years later, I found myself constantly famished. In the meantime, I had relapsed into carnivorous territory for a few years in New York (after successfully maintaining a vegan diet for months in Costa Rica, which was no picnic). A move to Madison, Wis., later and this glutton for punishment went vegetarian and then vegan again. But when an herbalist suggested I cut soy out of my diet, I realized I had to start eating eggs or spend most of my time hungry and hunting for food. A month later, I stood bewildered in the dairy aisle, confounded by choices of eight different concentrations of milk. After the dairy experiment, I was still not in the best health and remained quite hungry, so I got on the pescatarian bandwagon. (Most restaurants in Madison have amazing fish frys on Friday evenings. That and the cheese curds encouraged some dietary shifts.)

As I integrated more healthful sources of animal protein into my diet, I felt it my responsibility to stick with the most local and organic options. I buy organic whole milk from Sassy Cow Creamery and organic, soy-free eggs from M&M Farms. (I recently made huevos ranchers with two types of eggs: M&M’s and a leading national organic brand. M&M’s yolks were much oranger and the shells were stronger too.) I willingly pay more for these products because, in a capitalist economy, every dollar is a vote. I vote for sustainability.

I feel priveleged because I realize the opportunity to vote with your food dollar is a luxury for many. I have access to these products and the money to spend on them. I make it a priority. College loans can wait: I need fresh food!

I’ve extended that effort to the seafood that I eat. I take the same attitude with fish as I did with meat. I eat it at restaurants, which makes it a bit trickier to get information on where the fish was sourced from. Some of the best fish frys are at local mom-and-pop joints with other priorities than sustainability. But there are plenty of local-food restaurants in town whose fish frys I’m destined to try. Seafood is new to me and it’s a learning process I enjoy.

As part of the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association, I’m committed to sharing the same information I look for when making choices about what I eat. I hope to enlighten and am always interested in questions and feedback. Thanks for joining us on this sustainable seafood journey! I’m sure it will encourage us to be more mindful of not just the food we eat, but the world in general.

Check out the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch App to help you make the most sustainable seafood purchasing decisions.

From Farm to Fromage: Cypress Grove Chevre

TurningoutTruffleTremorBy Holly Henschen, Editor

This story originally appeared in the July/August print edition of Food Manufacturing. 

Growth can be stressful for food manufacturers. Particularly for artisan producers with traditional processes that can be hundreds of years old. But Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, Calif., anxiously awaits its upcoming expansion. The footprint of the specialty goat cheesemaker’s facility will nearly double, thanks to an investment from its new owner. And the new space? It’s connected to their current building. It’s anomaly in the stressful acquisition trend, but Cypress Grove Chevre has absolutely nothing but praises for its parent company.

In the 1970s, Mary Keehn built the foundation of Cypress Grove Chevre with her own two hands. First, they were offering food to a semi-feral goat on her neighbor’s land in Humboldt County. The single mother simply wanted fresh milk for her four daughters. But she ended up a goat breeder with an oversupply of milk. A stint in regional cheese sales and a trip to Europe later, and Cypress Grove Chevre was born in 1983. The company’s signature cheese, Humboldt Fog, consists of two layers of chevre, each coated in vegetable ash per French custom. Named after a local daily weather occurrence, Humboldt Fog is one of 13 Cypress Grove Chevre cheeses and 13 SKUs distributed in 50 states and Southern Canada. Two aged cheeses, Goudas to be exact, are produced by the new parent company. One is made from goat’s milk and the other from sheep’s.

In 2010, after 27 years in the business, Keehn sold to Swiss cheesemaker Emmi. Now, Cypress Grove Chevre’s new creamery nears completion. The company also boasts a 32-acre, 550-goat dairy which supplies a portion of Cypress Grove Chevre’s primary ingredient.

The market for specialty cheeses like goat cheese has grown noticeably in the last decade. Total U.S. retail sales of natural and specialty cheeses were $15.7 billion in 2013, according to Packaged Facts. The new facility will help Cypress Grove up their supply in response.

“We have a plant that is currently operating over capacity and have an opportunity to meet market demand,” said David Estes, operations director at Cypress Grove Chevre. “Emmi has provided us with the capital and expertise to meet this demand and at the same time up our game in terms of food quality and safety with improved infrastructure and manufacturing systems.”

“[Emmi] very much treat[s] us as an autonomous brand and take[s] a hands-off approach to managing the business,” said Janne Rasmussen, marketing manager at Cypress Grove Chevre. No staff changes were made among the company’s 50 employees when it was bought.

The new addition will bump the facility’s footprint from 14,000 feet to 27,000. The Cypress Grove Chevre creamery, nestled in a residential area of the bohemian town Arcata, was built in 2004.

The property contains two barns that were once part of a cow dairy, the only source of milk in the area in the early 1900s. Cypress Grove Chevre restored the surrounding land and got permission from the city to build on the condition that the architecture stayed true to the agricultural setting of the parcel. Before 2004, Cypress Grove Chevre operated in nearby McKinleyville, where the dairy is now located.

The New Digs

From the beginning of the cheese-making process to the final steps, Cypress Grove Chevre’s new facility will allow for more precision in production and consistency.

“We did want to ease into the future. It’s a 10-year plant,” Estes said. “Moving in is going to be half of the challenge.”

The new plant has three main sections: a raw milk plant, fresh cheese production and aged cheese production. Multiple hygiene rooms separate areas that hold different types of cheeses to avoid cross-contamination from different cheese making spores associated with each type of cheese. The raw zone is completely separated from the rest of the plant and even has a separate entrance.

Humboldt Fog Growing MoldExpanded Capacity

The new facility will accept milk deliveries from conventional 6,000-gallon trucks, an upgrade from the current 3,000-gallon capacity. From the truck, milk will be pumped into the milk silo before pasteurization.  The HTST pasteurizer uses less water and energy and offers much more control than the currently used pasteurization method. Preparing goat milk for cheese production is a slow process compared to typical large-scale cheese manufacturing.  It takes more than 36 hours to go from pasteurized milk to fresh cheese that is ready to be packaged.  For soft ripened cheeses, the process takes an additional 17 days before packaging.  The new method and capacity will allow for a 250 percent output increase for both types of cheeses.

Cypress Grove Chevre’s dairy is experimenting with out-of-season breeding as goat milk is in limited supply. Goat cheese is a highly seasonal product. Though June is the peak of milk production,the cheese is most heavily consumed from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

Food Safety

Food safety measures are embedded in the infrastructure of Cypress Grove Chevre. The process rooms in the new facility are essentially their own buildings within the exterior building and allow for stringent environmental controls. Utilities are housed in the attic space and routed directly down to the point of use so utilities materials within the production areas are minimized. Corner mount lighting fixtures minimize the potential for cross-contamination from ceiling condensation. A building management system carefully balances the pressure differentials rooms to minimize the potential of airborne contaminants to infiltrate the most sensitive process rooms. The entire plant is built for regular wash down, but will be operated as a “dry” plant during operation.

Quality Control

More precise temperature and humidity controls in production areas will avoid product loss, improve product consistency and extend cheese shelf life. The European-style curd press, which separates the whey from the curd, will allow for much more exact moisture levels in the early stages of the cheesemaking process. For the soft-ripened cheeses, a new drying room and ripening caves will allow for more controlled ripening environments and will translate into a more consistent finished product.

“We will be able to more precisely dial in every step of our cheesemaking process and will ultimately result in a better product to the final consumer,” Estes said. “With a little packaging innovation here and there, we may be able to extend shelf life.”

The fresh cheese has a shelf life of at least 12 weeks, while aged cheese has a shelf life of 6-8 weeks uncut.

Digital-Edition-250x311The Mission Remains the Same

Cypress Grove Chevre’s artisan practices will remain unchanged in its new facility. Soft, aged cheeses like Humboldt Fog, are turned, packaged and wrapped by hand. Some varieties are even hand-labeled. In fresh cheese production, herbs, like lavender, dill and chili threads, are hand-sprinkled for flavor, aesthetics and taste.

Estes is allotting a realistic amount of time for production trials before processing is fully converted to the new facility. After all, it takes time to get things just right in a new home. Mid-August is realistic for starting the transition, he said.

“It could be months before we’re fully dialed in and satisfied with our trials,” he said. “Quality is everything.”

With a new owner, Cypress Grove Chevre is getting ready for the future by investing in a new facility. As part of a new family in a stable specialty market, the cheesemaker is upping its game for the longer term with innovative technology in the food-safety savvy facility, securing even more longevity in the specialty cheese market.

Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association: Under the Sea and Onto Your Plate — Responsibly

Logo(July 14, 2014) Something’s fishy.

The most recent data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations shows annual world fishery production of 158 million tons, up an astonishing345% from fifty years earlier. Global per capita consumption of seafood has nearly doubled to 19 kilograms annually in the last 50 years, and by 2050, the population is expected to balloon to 9 billion. Despite the vital importance of seafood as a world food supply, there is relatively little conversationoutside the scientific, activist and conservation communities about how to replenish and maintain it. Everyone plays a role in the health of the oceans, and with more information, can contribute in ways that accumulate to make a sizeable difference.

Enter the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association (SSBA). Five independent bloggers from the worlds of food, science, culture and regulation have banded together, each creating weekly blog posts to bring seafood sustainability into ongoing conversations about food, corporate responsibility and environmental stewardship. Together, their social media channels reach roughly 50,000 subscribers, a substantial audience and robust network for the SSBA to begin its campaign.

  • Richard Auffrey of The Passionate Foodie is a licensed attorney in Massachusetts, an award-winning food and drink writer and a sake educator.
  • Holly Henschen of The Futurist Farmgirl is a long-time food journalist, nature-lover and former Midwestern farm dweller who’s written for publications including: The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and Food Manufacturing.
  • Tom Siebertz of Chews-Worthy, formerly of the NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service, is a regulatory & food labeling specialist, as well as a student of food science, business and regulatory affairs.
  • Jason Simas of The Food Safety Blog is founder of Grant, Hamilton & Beck communications consultancy and directs social media communications for the food safety and sustainability life science company iPura Foods.
  • Kerrie Urban of Urban Foodie Finds co-founded Blog and Tweet Boston and writes on topics such as organic vs. natural foods and sustainability, as well as local farmers and small businesses.

The growing world population taxes water supplies, as well as the wildlife and food sources that inhabit them. Sustainable practices are vital to cultivating the seafood that remains and ensuring these creatures continue viable food sources for years to come. Look forward to cogent conversations from the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association that aim to integrate this imperative topic of choice into the growing movement toward responsible food.

Visit the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association members on their respective blogs and on Twitter at #SSBAFish.

Contact: Jason Simas

granthamiltonbeck@gmail.com

(805) 438-4268

That Other Thing Making Us Fat

Newsflash: Food isn’t the only thing making us fat! To food and health personalities like Mark Bittman, Katie Couric and Michael Pollan preaching against typical eating habits: I hear you. But it’s not just the food.

Allow me to indulge myself with an anecdote related to obesity. I grew up on a farm. So did my father, his father and my great-grandfather. They got up before the sun every day to milk cows by hand. Then they did it again in the evening. My great-grandfather drove mules to plow, plant and harvest crops on hundreds of acres of land each year. My great-grandmother raised chickens and a garden for fresh vegetables. Somewhere along the line, indoor plumbing and electricity came along. And now machines do much of the back-breaking work on farms and in day-to-day life. But a few generations later, my family generally eats the same as they did when manual labor was the easiest sort to come by. And it’s not just my family.

Technology and urbanization aren’t the only things changing the way we live (and die) in developed economies. Take this unpopular sentence: The price of food in the United States is relatively cheap compared to the rest of the world. Americans spend less than 10 percent of our incomes on food.  In Japan, that spending level falls in the high teens. The Economist postulates that, as countries develop, citizens there spend proportionately less on food. We’ve also seen that obesity tends to climb in more developed countries. Let’s not kid ourselves: Americans like things cheap. So we buy more food. Human bodies are designed to seek out the most energetically rewarding things to eat. So we eat fat and sugar because it makes us feel good.

In a recent column, long-time New York Times food spokesperson Mark Bittman says that sugar and processed foods are causing weight gain. These energy sources alone are not the only nefarious influences plaguing the bodies of citizens of developed countries.

By and large, these citizens — Americans included — generally spend the majority of their waking hours in front of computers. It’s unhealthy for our bodies and throws our natural energy cycles off. We drink excessive amounts of caffeine to stay awake and motivated in the sitting position, which stresses our adrenal glands and taxes the quality of our sleep. That makes many people so tired that when they’re done sitting at a desk, all they have energy to do is to go home and relax in front of the computer or TV. The Washington Post says all of this sitting leads to organ damage, muscle degeneration, foggy brains and bad backs. I can surely attest to that last symptom. Americans also typically have fewer vacation days and use fewer sick days. That’s more time we’re soaking up screen time and fluorescent lighting in our offices with windows that can’t open to let in fresh air.

I imagine you’re reading this sitting at your desk, a similar place to where I’m writing it. Or perhaps riding on public transportation. So why don’t you take another quick trip with me?

I recently spent five days camping in the lush and rocky state and national parks west of Denver. Aside from several hikes that lasted as long as I usually occupy my desk chair, I had to walk to a water pump and exert more energy than turning on the tap to get H20. I gathered kindling and helped build a fire at night. I hiked all day, like humans were generally designed for. I barely looked at my phone, let alone a computer screen. I probably lost a few pounds in the process and I felt great besides. I was in the sun and the fresh air, the way nature intended. I have yet to see any research on the influence of fluorescent lights and central air on obesity.

We don’t need a war on “Big Food” to lower obesity rates in the U.S. We need to reevaluate our lifestyles as a culture. The warlike option is the easier one, which is why Katie Couric’s recent documentary “Fed Up” places the blame for obesity on food manufacturers. In addition to bowing to consumer demand for more natural and organic foods, the industry needs to stick up for itself and point a finger at how Americans live instead of just what they eat.

Overeating unhealthy food isn’t helping, but it’s also not the one-and-only culprit in the U.S. and global obesity epidemic. It’s our current lifestyle in the industrialized world and the fact that our bodies evolved to survive the wilds of nature, but we now use them, generally, to sit in buildings. That other thing making us fat is how we live.

The Avant Gardener

My first trek into the community garden plot Saturday was glorious! A sunny, breezy Saturday morning. I would like a week of those, please.

It’s time for this farm girl to get reacculturated into toiling in the soil. I’ve developed a bit of a complex surrounding gardening. I grew up on a farm with a sizeable garden. My experience: when you put things in the ground and they get enough water, they grow. I’m starting to wonder if that’s a simplistic perspective or if that’s the truth and I’m actually over-thinking it. Only time will tell!

I’ve waited three years for this coveted garden spot. It’s along a happenin’ bike path, near the cool community center and a block from my fave coffee shop. My plot is 15×17 and slopes downward. I’m not sure yet if I’ll construct some terraforming (my trip last fall to Peru has me intrigued on that agricultural angle) or if I’ll make some large mounds.

I used the rake I hauled over haphazardly on my bike to scrape off last year’s straw. My arsenal of gardening tools is currently non-existant, so I borrowed my plot neighbors’ shovel and  removed some wayward weeds. As my grandfather said, “A weed is anything that grows where you don’t want it to.” Among the weeds were some scallions/onions/leftovers from last year that had formed a sort of uni-union… It made me think of a rat king. It was an onion king. The onion king is dead. There are also a bed of tulips between my plot and the bike path, but they’re not doing so hot. There are no blooms and it appears they weren’t buried deep enough. Their bulbs are showing, their buds are not. I may have to dig them up.

I wheel-barrowed (it was a borrowed barrow) my straw-cetera to the community pile and hauled back a few loads of rich, dark compost. All in all, it took an hour, but then I laid back in the nearby grass and soaked in some sun. It was lovely to make light conversation with dog-walking neighbors who ambled by. One commented on the rhubarb in the neighboring plot. I didn’t even realize it was rhubarb. For farmgirl shame!

I’ve got seedlings growing under my kitchen table, which was the best spot to hang my borrowed grow lamps. Three types of tomatoes are sprouting, as are green peppers, kale,

The green beans are running the show under the table and the peas are strong understudies. There’s some rosemary and Thai basil making an entrance, but not too dramatically. I’ve got designs on some cilantro once the other guys are in the ground. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate with my plans to make that happen on Labor Day weekend, for I’m headed to Colorado for a work/backpacking trip soon after! Then I’ll construct an anti-rabbit fence and employ my gardening sidekicks to vigilantly guard the plot.

May your early gardening be as exciting as mine, and/or may you live vicariously through my gardening adventures. Here’s a little gardening soundtrack for your ears.

2014: The Year of the Label

What’s in a name? Or, more appropriately for food manufacturers, what’s on a label? In 2014, this question will be analyzed from angles we’ve yet to imagine. 

While the federal government struggles to implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act, industry groups and large food processors are taking up the mantle to define food labeling. For some large processors, the sustainable practices often associated with this type of labeling, as well as the larger consumer movement for food information, have become part of corporate strategy and reliable ingredient sourcing. Food manufacturers are wise to keep a close watch on these developing trends to best position their operations for changes in both labeling and the product content it describes.

GMOs: General Mills kicked off 2014 by slapping “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” labeling on boxes of original Cheerios. The breakfast classic’s primary ingredient, oats, made the transition simple because that crop’s never been genetically modified. But, like green grocery innovator Whole Foods’ demand that suppliers label GMO content by 2018, such moves by big players are a bellwether of what could become the norm.

Food manufacturers are keeping a hawk’s eye on GMO labeling policy. Campbell Soup Co. Vice President of Manufacturing Mark Cacciatore said in an interview in December “… we need consistency in legislation. It would be chaos for us if there were different [GMO labeling] requirements in different parts of the country.”

Last year, 26 states introduced GMO labeling legislation, sparking several highly publicized and narrowly defeated votes. Only two states succeeded: Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws that go into effect only if four other large states also implement labeling laws. Several states are already proposing laws regarding GMO agriculture and foods this year.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is pitching a federal GMO policy that would make the labeling voluntary, preempt state laws on GMO labels and shift much of the responsibility of OKing GMO foods to the Food and Drug Administration.

Natural: In the same proposal, the GMA wants the FDA to define the term “natural” and preempt states from defining the word. The FDA admits “natural” is difficult to define. It hasn’t objected to foods labeled “natural” if they’re free of added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. But that’s advice, not law. In the last year, well-known manufacturers including Pepperidge Farms, Naked Juice, Ben & Jerry’s and Frito-Lay dropped the word from their labeling and marketing as suspect ingredients were called into question amid a flurry of class-action suits. 

Sustainable: McDonald’s recently vowed to source only “verified sustainable beef” for its burgers by 2016. This year, the fast food giant said it aspires to support development of global principles and criteria for that beef. “Sustainable,” like “natural” is another labeling term that lacks uniform definition.

Nutrition Labeling: Facts Up Front, the front-of-package nutrition labeling initiative spearheaded by the GMA and Food Marketing Institute in 2011, is expected to unleash a $50 million ad campaign. Supporters including General Mills, Kraft and Mondelez International will likely fund their own promotion of the labeling. The GMA said as many as 80 percent of products from participating manufacturers will display Facts Up Front by the end of 2014.

Food Date Labels: In its campaign against food waste, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has honed in on food date labels printed on packaging. Often interpreted by consumers and retailers as expiration dates, the council and some manufacturers say this date instead indicates peak freshness. As the date comes and goes, confused consumers toss the food out due to safety concerns. This could add up to hundreds of dollars’ worth of annual waste for American households. The NRDC calls for a simpler date labeling system for food. Though the FDA and USDA regulate food label dating, they don’t define the date terms, leaving it up to states. Lack of an industry-wide definition equals more food in dumpsters, according to the NRDC. 

Food labeling is the industry topic to watch in 2014. Food Manufacturing will keep you posted with daily news, articles and blogs at http://www.foodmanufacturing.com.

This article originally appeared in Food Manufacturing’s January/February 2014 print issue.

Food is Going to Pot

Edibles, special brownies or adult cookies. Call the THC-infused foods now legally on the market in Colorado and Washington what you will. The regional legalization of recreational marijuana opens a door for niche food manufacturers, though some consumers are finding it hard to swallow.

ABC News said the products are flying off of the shelves to the point that retailers are imposing purchase limits. In fact, one edibles company is investing in a new 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and warehouse to meet demand. Like wine tours and cheese tastings, THC-infused edibles offer an intriguing new educational experience for foodies in locales where it’s legal. Twenty states and the District of Columbia allow medical cannabis use. Given the current tide of decriminalization and palliative legalization, the edibles market is buzzworthy indeed.

The Washington Post reports the push toward legalized and taxed marijuana has roots in states’ financial desperation. The paper publication also posits that forays into natural health cures and citizen skepticism about government regulation (and perhaps hilariously kitschy propaganda) are cultivating consumer interest in cannabis. Edibles offer an alternative for those who’d rather not smoke. Hemp, the male cannabis plant, is also gaining more acceptance as an extremely renewable source of fiber for cloth and paper.

But this is America, so naysayers killing the vibe are definitely in supply.

Recently, The New York Times ran a column penned by a mother whose 21-year-old son unknowingly ate a roommate’s THC-infused chocolate bar. The man ended up in the hospital, yet sustained no lasting injuries. But don’t blame the manufacturer. He ate a “4:20 Bar” wrapped in a very explicit label detailing its THC content and the recommended serving size. It’s unfortunate that he had a bad experience, but he’s an adult. And an allergic reaction to peanuts would cause more lasting harm.

Won’t someone think of the children?

Another New York Times article stated that “. . .  like flavored cigarettes or wine coolers, critics say, edible marijuana offers a dangerously easy on-ramp for younger users.” Yet Boone’s Farm and Mike’s Hard Lemonade are perfectly legal. That’s where adult supervision comes in. The article follows that, “Marijuana, even if consumed by children in high doses, poses few of the grave dangers of overdosing on alcohol or drinking household chemicals.” In environments with young children, it’s common sense to hide the edibles, just like responsibly stashing liquor and Draino out of their reach. Accordingly, manufacturers have a responsibility to label their products accordingly and to refrain from advertising that would attract children.

Foods containing THC shouldn’t be any more maligned than alcoholic beverages.

Countless booze-soaked foods are on the market. My dad likes to hand out Grand Marnier chocolates at Christmas. A local bar dispenses amazing vodka-soaked gummy bears. A former coworker bestowed Old Kentucky Bourbon Chocolates upon the office folk around Derby time. I’m sure we’ve all had a few too many Jell-O shots once or twice.  It’s a personal and parental responsibility to police what’s being munched on.

On a recent trip to Peru, I drank copious cups of coca tea to calm altitude sickness. Without coca candy, I couldn’t have made it through the four-day Inca Trail hike, including a 13,775-foot peak. Coca, the plant whose leaves are used to create the addictive drug cocaine, has been used harmlessly for centuries in high-altitude parts of Peru. Shops in the country sell candy and cookies infused with the leaf’s active ingredient. Sure, if you consume too much, you’re bound to have an unfavorable reaction. But that’s a personal choice. If a consumer has nausea, a headache or would rather not drink but still itches for some stress relief, edibles are an accessible answer where legally allowed.

Some edibles producers load more than average food manufacturing technology into their production processes. These aren’t your garden-variety Phish concert brownies.

Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, the previously mentioned expanding edibles manufacturer, extracts cannabis oil with CO2 and concentrates it. The company conducts lab tests on the extracts and products at three stages in the manufacturing process to ensure proper dosage. Getting legitimate processors involved in manufacturing this kind of food is much safer for consumers than the randomly produced varieties available at festivals probably near you. Technology in edibles production also opens a door for food manufacturing equipment makers who are willing to cater to the budding market.

Adding to the viability of edibles manufacturing is the Obama administration’s recently issued guidelines for banks working with legitimate marijuana enterprises. Meant to instill confidence in doing this previously illicit business, banks say the guidelines aren’t sufficient and the government seems to be blowing smoke. However, several similar small edicts add up to eventual major policy shifts.

It’s not a business model for everyone, particularly those outside of states that currently allow cannabis sales, but THC-infused edibles is a niche market with high profit potential.

Food Additives Go Au Natural

A quick Google search of “food additives” yields first-page results including the terms “avoid,” “scariest,” “evil” and “sketchy.” The court of public opinion has handed down a verdict that food manufacturers would be wise to heed. By popular demand, the natural additives are coming.

Shorter, simpler and therefore “cleaner” food labels are in high demand by health-conscious consumers. Manufacturers face a reformulation challenge: consistently adapt the product to the previous version’s flavor, color, mouthfeel and shelf stability. Some large food manufacturers are complying piecemeal with natural additive demand while attempting to maintain the quality of their products.

Kraft Foods is on a natural-additive tear. Last October, Kraft vowed to cut artificial dyes from three varieties of mac and cheese that come in kid-friendly pasta shapes. In February, the company pledged to remove artificial preservatives from its most popular varieties of Singles cheese slices by replacing sorbic acid with natamycin. This naturally occurring anti-fungal agent, produced by bacteria during fermentation, is commonly found in soil.  What’s so bad about sorbic acid? It’s just not “natural.”

“Natural” lacks legal definition, but has generally agreed-upon parameters. The FDA washes its hands of total authority, admitting that “[b]ecause of inherent limitations of science, FDA can never be absolutely [emphasis theirs] certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any substance.” Hence consumer demand for natural food additives.

What’s all of the food fuss about? I trace the current wave of the new American food consciousness to Michael Pollan. The author, in his 2008 New York Times Best Seller “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” postulated that it’s healthiest to abstain from eating foods and ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. Pollan refers to highly manufactured foods as “food-like substances.” Cue the rush to all things natural in order to promote health in an era riddled with obesity and chronic disease.

As international trade erases borders, consumers are increasingly turning to foods whose sources and ingredients are more transparent. People who spend their days inundated by technology are finding comfort in simple, classic foods and home cooking. But most food purists simply can’t spend all of their extra hours in a flour-dusted apron. The next-best alternative? Eat processed foods that contain as few ingredients as possible, preferably natural. That’s where manufacturers come in.

Consumers want transparency and choice. If they can afford it, they’ll avoid health risks. In the information age, consumer sentiment is forcing the government’s hand.

For instance, the FDA is currently investigating caramel coloring in soft drinks and other foods after Consumer Reports tested them for chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), an impurity formed at low levels in some caramel coloring during manufacturing. The FDA hasn’t established a maximum 4-Mel level, though Consumer Reports urged the agency to set one.

When it comes to additives, the FDA is charged with finding reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when used as suggested. Note that recently banned trans fats were considered innovative when Proctor & Gamble began selling “crystallized cottonseed oil,” branded as Crisco, in 1911. They were effectively banned mere months ago. Wary consumers might be ahead of their time.

Manufacturers’ investigations into more natural ingredients encourages a shift in the additive market. Packaged Facts has acknowledged slack and falling demand in several artificial food additive categories, and forecasts that R&D within the natural additives industry will lead to development of new natural additives and colorings. This transition to natural ingredients will be easier for large manufacturers whose economies of scale afford them more flexibility, but eventually small manufacturers are likely to go with the natural additive flow.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 print issue of Food Manufacturing.

Antibiotics and Pigs’ Blood: You Are What What You Eat Eats

Despite the title, I’m not blogging after too many drinks or while performing some satanic ritual. What I mean to say is: If you are what you eat, then you are also what your food gets its nourishment from. Two recent cases might quell your appetite.

Case One: Antibiotics in animal feed. The FDA announced last week that 25 pharmaceutical companies would voluntarily phase out antibiotics used in feed to promoting animal growth. The drugs were initially meant to eliminate illnesses in animals, as they are in humans. But in the in the 1970s, scientists noticed antibiotics made for bigger livestock. Heavier animals fetch higher prices at market, so antibiotics became a common animal-feed additive. Then, as exposure to those antibiotics worked through the food chain, humans started to show more tolerance to antibiotics used to treat illnesses. It seemed that pathogens in human bodies were reacting to the antibiotics introduced in animal bodies. The CDC called for a change in antibiotic practices last year, attributing 23,000 deaths annually toinfections resistant to antibiotics.

According to consumer group The Organic Center, “Statistics released by FDA show that animal production uses over 29 million pounds of antibiotics annually. If everyone chose just one organic product out of every 10 they purchased, we could eliminate over 2.5 million pounds of unnecessary antibiotic use each year. That could go a long way in reducing the development of antibiotic resistance.”

Yikes.

The FDA is taking heed and hopefully we’ll have those pathogens under control soon. In the meantime, some companies, like Chick-Fil-A, are switching to meat from antibiotic-free animals to appease the concerned public.

That’s a start on antibiotics, as The New York Times editorial board encourages, but jury is still out on this next issue.

Case Two: Porcine Blood.

The Wall Street Journal reports that porcine plasma, a powder made from pigs’ blood and mixed into animal feed, may be spreading the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) virus. It’s what’s for dinner! A reduced U.S. pork herd could lead to higher costs for manufacturers of pork foods like lunchmeat and, everyone’s favorite, bacon. Retailers and consumers are likely to feel a hog shortage in their wallet too. The spread of PED also makes U.S. pork exports less appealing to trading partners.

In the age of information, consumers can find out almost anything about their food. And they care about what what they eat eats. Consumers are also becoming more interested in how their food lived and even died. Animal rights groups are pushing for better treatment of hogs during gestation and chickens during slaughter.

Where do you stand on the use of antibiotics and animal rights in food production?

This blog was originally posted on FoodManufacturing.com on April 3, 2014.

Butter Tales and Saturated Fat Stories

My father, Lynn Henschen, center front, has been proudly eating butter for 56 years. He's pictured here on his family farm in Central Illinois circa 1960 with my grandfather LaVerne, left, Uncle Terry, right, and great grandfather Albert, center back.

My father, Lynn Henschen, center front, has been proudly eating butter for 56 years. He’s pictured here on his family farm in Central Illinois circa 1960 with my grandfather LaVerne, left, Uncle Terry, right, and great grandfather Albert, center back.

I never thought I’d say this, but my dad was right all along.

For the last 15 years or so, my brothers, sister and I (and probably my mom) have been somewhat cruelly teasing my father about his love for dairy, particularly butter. There must be butter in the house at all times. Sour cream and milk are similar staples. A temporary dairy shortage in the kitchen is a veritable natural disaster. Of course, those foods are a way of life for a man who grew up on a second-generation dairy farm. In my youth, each trip to a restaurant (likely a steakhouse) meant Dad was ordering a T-bone and baked potato with extra sour cream and butter.

Delicious? Of course. Healthy? Hardly. Or so we thought. A recently published meta-analysis of health studies shows that saturated fats don’t have the deleterious effects on heart health that were preached for decades. While more research into the matter is necessary, these findings shut the refrigerator door on a dry slice of food history.

At the same time, recent data shows a 25 percent jump consumption of butter in the last decade, bringing it to a 40-year high. Part of that equation is a shift away from trans fats. The consumer trend of preferring less-processed counterparts is undeniable. If there’s one things Americans do well, it’s get on a dietary bandwagonwhole hog.

As far back as I can recall, the nutritional intelligentsia has cycled through crazes that demonize a single food or macronutrient: fat, calories, carbohydrates. But my father, the cattle farmer, Mr. Meat, Milk and Potatoes, stood firm.

According to New York Time food writer Mark Bittman, data show that sugar and ultra-processed foods are the “real villains in our diet.” Given the knee-jerk reversal of opinion on saturated fat, one could choose to take that information with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, ‘less processed=better for you’ is a growing consumer perception. This brings food manufacturers to a fork in the road. One path is to find ways to reduce the processing their wares undergo. The other is to continue in the same direction and see where they end up.

A move toward less-processed food puts many manufacturers in a pickle. But solutions may be simpler than they appear from the outset. There’s a burgeoning science in reformulating foods for shorter shelf-lives and using alternative sweeteners and additives. The move toward less-processed foods isn’t upsetting the applecart; it’s an evolution. One that a growing number of consumers are willing to pay for at the checkout.

When I was a teenager following ‘90s food trends (Surge and Lunchables, anyone?), my father harped on me for refusing to consume any sliver of fat I found in the steaks and roasts abundant in the family’s meal rotation. “That’s the best part,” he’d say. “Your body needs fat to live.” It was true, but teenage-me didn’t want to hear it. I ate as little fat as possible, as did most health-minded folks at the time.

This week, for the first time in years, I brought butter home from the grocery store. Three pounds of it. Now, note that two of those were unsalted and ended up in a cake and icing. The other pound was for personal consumption — over an extended period of time, mind you. I’m not even a quarter of the way through the first stick. But butter is back in my life.

So, along with butter, I’m eating crow. To my dad, the dairy freedom fighter: You were right. The science is in. You can have your cake and eat it too.

This was originally posted on FoodManufacturing.com on Feb. 28, 2014.