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Part 2: “The symbolism of food is local”

This is part two of a multi-part review of an interview I did with Wayne Robert in August 2020. Sadly Wayne passed away in January 2021. Reading through the interview we did for my book gives me hope for the future. You can find Part 1 here.

The most significant quote of the interview was “The symbolism of food is local.” and in this post I  explore Wayne’s role in building a local food movement in Toronto and his support of others around the world to do the same in their communities. He was manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council which was the first food policy council in a big city. There are now 350 food policy councils throughout Canada and North America. 

A food policy council is an organized group of stakeholders from various sectors that may be sanctioned by a government body or may exist independently of government, which works to address food systems issues and needs at the local (city/municipality or county), state/provincial, regional or Native American/First Nations levels though policy. He came to food policy after working in the labor movement and the attitudes there had a huge influence on how he approached food systems change. 

“I used to be in the labor movement and in the labor movement, the practice that was followed was called leap frogging which is: This group gets x. Now our group deserves the same. Then we jump back and forth. So I wanted to get that game going in city food policy. ”

This led to a discussion on the size of the food industry as a whole because few people recognize that food is one of the biggest employers in a city and is the third largest industry. 

[.T]he fact is, it’s true in every city, the biggest employer in every city is food. […] because you add together waiters and waitresses and usually there’s some local food processing. Toronto is the one of the biggest food processing centers in North America and there’s a lot of manufacturing employment. And when people think of it only as agriculture, they don’t think the city as the center of food employment.”

We discussed my challenges teaching food science and having to recognize that the jobs for my students were with the multinational corporations and, not even if they were interested, with smaller local businesses or with changing the food system. This became a personal problem when I left academia to have a more direct, grassroots influence on the food system. 

“The Food moment, by its nature, is a local movement. “The symbolism of food is local. You know, it’s mom and grandma making meals and eating with friends and, you know, much more intimate. It’s not thought of as the auto industry or some other impersonal industry, industry. It’s thought of in a personal way.”

Local and regional food have been shown to be essential during the pandemic. In my search for a local food movement, I’ve volunteered with both the Philadelphia Food Advisory Council and with the New Haven Food Policy Council. I often wish there was one locally and every so often I talk to people about starting one, so a couple of years ago, I started the Cumberland County Food Systems Change Group. If you are interested in knowing more about your local food movement, you may search for a local food policy council here.

A Conversation with Wayne Roberts. Part 1: Introduction and Three Streams to Food Thinking

Back in August 2020, I was fortunate to interview Wayne Roberts, before he unexpectedly passed away in January, for my book, Food Science and Food Systems: A Call for Change. I was delighted when he agreed because I found his perspective on the food system refreshing. 

Wayne was a Canadian food policy analyst and writer. He was the manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000-2010. Before becoming a food policy leader, he was a labor and environmental activist. As he explains in the Introduction to The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, he stumbled into food activism because he felt stuck working with the environmental movement. He thought that “food could offer a way ahead, for the simple reason that eating demands that individuals make food decisions several times a day. Transport systems and energy systems don’t do that; here, your only choice is to take or leave what’s offered.”.

In our conversation, Wayne and I covered a diverse range of topics including food’s symbolism as a local movement and, why food must be in the public interest, and how this led to a push back from scientists.

Three Streams to Food Thinking

For me, one of our most interesting discussion points that Wayne raised was that he considered that there were three streams to food thinking. 

“My recent career has been centered around the idea that there are three streams to food thinking: Agriculture, and the supply chain. The other is nutrition, which is basically a concept of food as a fuel that feeds the engine and then, I consider there’s a third field, which is the human side of food, the people side of food. I’ve been trying to develop a notion of this as a distinctive field within food studies, what I call people centered or existential policy.”

In our conversation, we didn’t take this much further as it lead into a discussion on attitudes to science that I will explore in a later post. I see Wayne’s three streams of food thinking as ways that food studies could be divided:

  1. Agriculture and supply chain
  2. Nutrition
  3. People-centered

I find this interesting as I would personally, as a food scientist, divide the first category into more sub-categories. As someone who is professionally a food safety consultant whose research passion is in food chemistry, I am thinking about how my work fits into these three categories. Yes, they easily fit into the first category, if you consider food science an agricultural science. It wasn’t until I moved to the US that I found that food science was considered a subset of agricultural science. In the UK, Food Science departments are mostly part of the sciences along with chemistry. In the US, food science is part of the agricultural Land Grant mission of many public universities. 

For a mass produced food system, understanding food chemistry is important if you want to ensure that consumers get the healthiest, most nutritious food, so that is a way that food science influences the second category. The separation of nutrition and food science is, in my experience, a hard one for the layperson to understand as for most people food is food. It doesn’t matter to most people how the food gets to their plate, just that it is safe and healthy when it does. As someone who has both a nutrition and food science background, I explain the difference, with a joke that food scientists stop worrying about the food once it has been eaten and that is when nutritionists start worrying about food. 

The People-centered steam is newer to me. Food policy is very important to a food safety consultant. My business started as a way to support small and midsize food businesses comply with the new Food Safety Modernization Act regulations. Food policy also influences where my clients can make and package their foods. New Jersey for example, doesn’t allow any food to be made in a private kitchen, whereas in Pennsylvania, there is a cottage food law that covers jams and jellies and baked goods. 

We can use people centered thinking as an opportunity to look at local food systems. Many people I talk to about food systems are interested in strengthening their local food system and buy regional foods as much as possible. The increase in people who, during the pandemic, opted for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to buy food directly from a local farm is a sign of the value of local food systems. 

How do the three different streams of food thinking affect your life? If you are a food business, think beyond the science and manufacturing and look at how you overlap with nutrition if you are producing a particularly healthy food, and never forget that food policy is important!

What If

The one question I am always asking myself when I am writing food safety plans for my clients “What If?”:

  • What if the temperature isn’t exactly at 165 F when cooking chicken?
  • What if the sanitizer concentration is slightly less than the manufacturer recommends?
  • What if the food safety plan is only followed for every other batch?
  • What if colleagues turn up to work unwell?

And I worry. I worry about two things mostly:

  • My client’s customers and consumers
  • My client.

Customers and Consumers

Imagine: a child or an older adult having Salmonella from undercooked chicken

Undercooked chicken may cause foodborne illness
Cooking and manufacturing correctly stops food poisoning. Image from Pixabay

I am a food consumer and I am assuming you are one too! We all eat and, unless we are completely living off the grid, we buy food and food ingredients. We assume that food is safe for us to eat. Thus, selling food comes with a huge responsibility, whether you are selling directly to consumers, through Amazon or Facebook marketplaces; or through a distributor or supermarket. Small and large food producers, cooks, and manufacturers have a responsibility to create and sell food that is the highest quality possible which includes safety. 

When I think about consumers, my “What If” pictures someone, possibly a child or an older adult having Salmonella from undercooked chicken, suffering anaphylaxis from eating misbranded food because the label wasn’t checked for allergens, or breaking a tooth on a piece of metal because the blades of the blender went unchecked. There are lots of stories of people who have suffered from foodborne illness in the US as they affect one in six Americans annually. 

As a food manufacturer or producer, how can we make sure that your product is safe and not about to become part of a foodborne illness story? 

Food Producers and Manufacturers

Recalls are a bad way to manage food safety.

Check lists will help with food recalls
Keep your food safe and never use your recall plan. Deedster from Pixabay

I have this image in my mind of my clients undergoing a recall because they didn’t follow their food safety plan and their Good Manufacturing Practices. This happens to all food producers – I just read about Nestle recalling 381 tons of hot pockets because they contain foreign material such as glass and hard plastic. I am certain that Nestle has a very robust food safety program. Unfortunately, one consumer, that we know of, suffered minor oral injury. So what might have gone wrong? Did the X-ray machine fail? I am sure Nestle’s QA and Food Safety team are looking for the cause.. 

Recalls are a bad way to manage food safety. Not only are food recalls risky for the consumer, they are also costly. A typical food recall has been calculated to cost businesses $10 million in direct costs alone. That excludes costs from the loss of sales, loss of brand integrity and trust, liabilities fees, and increased insurance costs. 

Not to mention the cost to the people who made ill by eating contaminated food.

One of the challenges with “What If” is that we don’t have enough data. We don’t know for certain what would happen if the sanitizer concentration is slightly less than it should be one day. We don’t know if we will cause a foodborne outbreak if we only check the temperature of every other batch. Should we take the risk of a recall if our X-ray machine or metal detector stops working?

Due to my What Ifs, I tell my clients that they MUST NOT cut corners with food safety; to me it is just too risky. The recommendations in a food safety program are there for a reason. 

Which of your What Ifs are you uncertain about? Where are the potential risks in your food production processes? Book a call today so we can start working on your food safety program and making high quality, safe food for your consumers. 

What will 2021 Bring?

2021 written on paving with two arrows facing forward. Two shoes are lined up ready to enter into 2021.
What direction will 2021 take you. Image from Pixabay.

Well we’ve certainly had an interesting start to 2021! I hope that everyone is safe and has some interesting plans for 2021 that don’t include the loss of American democracy! I know I want a different 2021 than I had in 2020. I would love some new adventures, hopefully! I definitely want to visit my family, my friends and, you, my clients.

I am watching the news about COVID-19 and vaccination with cautious optimism. Cautious because who knows how many months it will be before most of us can be vaccinated and so I am wearing my mask and social distancing when I am outside and washing my damn hands all the time. I am hopeful and grateful that the pandemic might be over towards to end of 2021.

Chocolate Tasting

Squares of dark chocolate
Squares of dark chocolate. Image from Pixabay.

I bought lots of dark chocolate, my excuse being that I needed to try them to see if they would work for the triple chocolate buckwheat cookies I was baking. I ended up making the cookies with a little bit of each chocolate and they taste GREAT! I still have chocolate left over so I decided to do a tasting to find out which was my favorite chocolate. I thought you might want to join in! After all what could be better than an excuse to eat chocolate. And mine are all 70% or more cocoa so they are apparently all healthy for me too!

Food Exploring and Tasting 

What you will need to do your own tasting (if you can’t eat chocolate, you could use anything to join in. I initially did this style of food tasting as a FoodCorps member using Triscuits):

  1. Several types (at least two) of dark chocolate or food of your choice
  2. Water for rinsing
  3. Apple slices as a palate refresher
  4. Plain saltine cracker as taste remover
  5. Paper plates or parchment paper or foil to put the samples on
  6. Secret codes to identify the sample (random numbers work great) (This is hard if you live alone like me)
  7. Pen and paper for notes and my handy dandy food tasting table (see below)
five packages from chocolate, showing the five varieties I used.
I used a mixed variety for dark chocolate from 70-88% cocoa. Image by CDavies

Set up

  1. On one plate per person divide plate (or parchment paper or foil) into the number of samples you have
  2. Write the secret codes on the outer edge
  3. Make sure chocolate has been at room temperature for 30 mins and not near a heat source!
  4. Break the chocolate into small pieces, try to keep at least two squares together if you can
  5. Place apples and crackers on to another plate
  6. Each taster should get a plate of chocolate to taste, a plate with apple slices and crackers and glass of water.
My set up for chocolate tasting with chocolates on parchment paper labeled with numbers, a glass of water and a plate with saltine crackers.
Tasting set up. Image by CDavies

Tasting

We are going to use our senses to explore the chocolate. The first sense we use is our sight, so we will look at the chocolate, then we will smell, touch, feel, hear, taste the chocolate. How do we hear chocolate? More on that in a moment…

The important thing here is not to think about whether you “like” or “dislike” what you are tasting. We are exploring, not judging. And if there are several of you doing this together; don’t share your results until the end. Don’t, as food scientists say “Yuck someone else’s Yum”. If you think you might not like something, cut it up very small – less than ½ inch cubes are good – and then exploring it using your senses. Perhaps tasting it as a food explorer will make the food more interesting to taste.

For our chocolate tasting work your way through the following. After you’ve tasted one type of chocolate, eat some apple slices or a cracker and move onto the next. Feel free to drink water whenever you need it.

Appearance

Dark chocolate is dark brown! What else can we see when we look at our chocolate?

  • What particular dark brown is your chocolate? Are they all the SAME dark brown?
  • Is the chocolate shiny or glossy? Perhaps it is not shiny at all, we call that matt.
  • Does it have a white bloom on it? This is common in chocolate that might have been stored at varying temperatures. It is fine to eat chocolate with bloom; it is the cocoa butter coming to the surface.
  • What shape is your chocolate? Is it square or rectangular? Or perhaps it is round like coins?
  • What else do you notice about your chocolate?
This chocolate is shiny on the front and had a layer of white over the back. This didn't affect the flavor at all.
This chocolate had a glossy front and a matt back with a thin layer of bloom. It tasted fine. Image by CDavies

Touch and Sound 1

Just stroke your chocolate and notice what it feels like. Pick it up and notice how it feels. Now snap the squares apart. Was it easy to snap? 

Did it make a clean snap sound or did it sound a bit floppy? We judge a lot of food from the sound they make when we break them.

Smell 1

Chocolate doesn’t have much of a smell until it melts. Try living near a chocolate factory sometime – it smells delicious. However, hold a piece up to your nose and see if you notice any smells. Does it smell fruity or nutty? Or perhaps it brings back a memory of another time you ate chocolate? 

Texture and sound 2

Our teeth tell us a lot about the food we eat. Bite down on a piece of chocolate with your front teeth. Is it hard or soft? What sound do you hear when you make that bite or when you chew on a square of chocolate? What else do you notice about the chocolate? Is it gritty or smooth? Does it stick to your mouth. You will notice more texture if you let it melt on your tongue.

Try it! Take a piece of chocolate and let it melt on your tongue. What do you notice about the aroma of the chocolate now?

We notice more aromas in the chocolate when we let the chocolate melt in our mouths. This is because the aromas are bound up in the cocoa butter and are released into our nasal passages at the back of the mouth. This way of sensing aroma is known as retronasal. Orthonasal is when we smell directly from our noses. 

Taste

We taste food in our mouths. We notice if food is sweet, salty, bitter, acidic and/or sour. We also notice if food is spicy and we notice it’s temperature. Some of us are better tasting some tastes than others. We are supertasters. What do you notice about the chocolate? Is it sour? Perhaps it is bitter – it is dark chocolate after all. 

It is important NOT to get influenced by my suggestions here. Remember I don’t know what chocolate you are eating and I might be more sensitive to bitter tastes than you are.

Flavor

Flavor is a mixture of taste and smell. Our other senses also influence how we perceive the flavor of something too. Imagine eating a raw carrot that doesn’t make any sound? Do you think you could eat a fresh raw carrot without sound? If it didn’t make any sound what would you think? 

Check back here on my blog and on my Food Crumb to see what I find when I analyze my chocolates. I am going to test them over several days because I want to enjoy them too. Too many tasting sessions at once will mean that I will forget the differences between them. 

Senses:First
Impressions
Score from 1 (low) to 5 (high) 
For example:
Matt = 1; Glossy/shiny = 5
Appearance
Force need to snap with hands
Sound of snap
Smell orthonasal
(from the nose)
Force needed for bite
Texture on melting on tongue
Retronasal smell
(within the mouth)
Taste 
Overall Flavor
Handy Dandy Chocolate Tasting Table

Please share in the comments your experience of being a food explorer. What did you do differently? What did you learn about your food while exploring? 

Food Allergen Program

Eight main food allergens. Image from FDA

Allergens are only dangerous to the person sensitive to the allergen and then the allergen can be deadly. Fortunately we know enough about allergies, people’s responses and how to deal with them that given care, allergy sufferers may avoid their trigger and live happy, healthy, and long lives.

There are many allergens, the FDA lists eight food allergens and mentions that there are 160 foods that have caused an allergic response in sensitive individuals and that is not including those of us who have non allergic sensitivity responses, such as my response to alcoholic beverages. There is some confusion as to how to define a food allergen as sometimes a protein isn’t present and an apparent allergic response happens. Sulfite for example, can cause people to have asthma attacks and it is not a protein. Typically a food allergen causes the histamine response as discussed here.

As a food manufacturers we must do our part to protect consumers. A first step is to know which of our ingredients may cause an allergic response in sensitive consumers. This may be a minor component of an ingredient. Milk, for example, may be present in chocolate chips. This allergen must then be listed on the label for consumers to see. To ensure this happens correctly, requires that we have a standard operating procedure (SOP) to make sure that the right product goes in the right packaging. You don’t want to end up like Frito-Lay with Cheddar Cheese and Sour Cream Ruffles in Original Ruffles bags. This is misbranding and shall lead to a recall and loss of consumer trust; both of which could put a small food business out of business. 

As well as labeling, you also need to have Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and SOPS for managing allergens in your facility. This will make sure that you don’t accidentally have cross contact between a food containing an allergen and one that doesn’t. For example, this includes the cleaning and sanitation of your equipment and utensils thoroughly. 

When storing allergens, ensure that allergens, and ingredients containing allergens, are stored below other ingredients. One way to do this is to clearly label your ingredients on arrival with different colored stickers for each allergen type as this clearly shows what is in each package or on each pallet.

Shows how different colored stickers can be sued to represent different allergens
Allergens can be represented by stickers on ingredient packaging. (a) Write a letter code in the middle of the sticker to represent which tree nut, shellfish or fish. For example W= walnut

When ordering supplies, check that your ingredients or packaging haven’t changed. My experience has been that very occasionally suppliers will change how they make something which may lead to problems if you are caught unawares. 

Make sure your co-workers, sanitation team, pest control contractor and others commonly in your facility understand your allergen policy. If you are making a food that is free from an allergen, it is probably worth banning that ingredient from your facility. Schools, for example, do not allow peanuts in the school.

There are a lot of little ways to support your consumers with food allergies. The best way to ensure consumer safety is to work directly with me to create a comprehensive allergen policy that brings all these pieces together. Book a call today so we can get the process started.

Food Safety Mid Atlantic. This image explains that I offer food safety services.

FAO Reports Discuss 2020 Food and Agriculture

What people eat, and how that food is produced, not only affects their health, but also has major ramifications for the state of the environment and for climate change.

FAO 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition

The truth of this quote was apparent when reading both of the FAO’s 2020 reports on the state of the food system. 

Access to Water

Field with overhead irrigation. Not an option for many farmers.
Irrigation is not an option for many farmers. Image from Pixabay.

HARM Part 4: Hurdle Technology

I have written three articles about how we can use food processing to make our food safer and I call these the HARM series because Heat, Acid and Reduced Moisture are the main ways we can reduce the risk of foodborne illness. There are other ways, such as adding preservatives, high pressure processing, or specialized packaging which require specialized equipment or food science knowledge and typically are not what I would suggest first to my clients. 

HARM Part 3! Reduced Moisture

In my last blog post I discussed the safety of fruit and vegetables and the importance of acidity in their food safety. I referred back to “A” post of my HARM series. I realized that I never finished the series as there is no “RM” post. The pandemic obviously affected more than my ability to visit my clients.

Reducing the moisture content or lowering how much water is present is, along with heating and adding acid, another way of extending the shelf life of food products and preventing foodborne illness. 

A line of jams in bottles. Hot fill requires the food to be hot when put in the hot jars.
Jams have lots of sugar which reduces the available moisture content. Image from Pixabay.

Bacteria and other microbes need water to survive just like we do. Reducing your moisture content can make your food safer and extend its shelf life.

One way to reduce the moisture content is dehydration. However, I personally don’t want all my food to be like packaged camp food. The good news is that we don’t have to! We do not have to completely dehydrate a food product to stop microorganisms from growing in it.

How do we know how much to reduce the moisture content to stop microorganisms?