Reducing Foodborne Illness: HARM part 2 Acid

Vinegar is a great ingredient to add if you want to reduce the pH of something. Image by Cathy Davies

A few weeks ago, I wrote that when food entrepreneurs want to reduce foodborne illness they need to think about HARM, which stands for Heat, Acid, and Reduced Moisture. In that post we discussed heat and today we are going to look at acid. In today’s blog we are going to discuss how utilizing acid will reduce bacteria in our food and make it safer to consume. 

Lemon juice or citric acid is another way to reduce the pH. The flavor profile is less intense if you use citric acid rather than vinegar. Image by Cathy Davies

I’m going to share with you 2 specific strategies for doing this. Knowing that acid can reduce bacteria in our food is helpful especially if you have a food that you don’t want to heat to a very high temperature.

We can’t talk about acid without discussing pH. Luckily for you, I wrote about pH in an earlier post on my LabCat blog, so a quick reminder that pH goes from 1 to 14, with 1 being battery acid, 7 being neutral and 14 being strongly basic/alkaline. Like us, bacteria do not like either extreme of the pH scale. However, since most food is below neutral we control bacterial growth with acid. 

The FDA has useful definitions:

  1. Acid foods are those foods which naturally have a pH less than 4.6
  2. Acidified foods are those foods to which acid(s) or acid food(s) are added; and have a final pH that is similar to the acid/acid food that was added.
  3. Low acid foods are any foods with a finished equilibrium pH greater than 4.6 and a high moisture content.

The reason why a pH of 4.6 is so important is because of Clostridium botulinum. As I wrote in my first blog post here, this was one of the reasons why my tagline says “noncompliance = death”. Because of this bacteria, we have to be very careful of shelf stable packaged food as C. bot likes a closed environment where there is no oxygen. 

We can add acid, such as pickles in vinegar, or we can cause the food to make acid for itself. A classic example of this is sauerkraut. 

In my book, where I have milk as a case study for food processing, for the section on acid I discuss yogurt and how bacteria are used to convert the lactose into lactic acid which reduces the pH of fresh milk from 6.5-6.7 to 4.0-4.6 depending on what kind of yogurt is being made. 

The growth of bacteria gives some interesting flavors and allows the milk to set in a way that adding acid to milk would not. In fact adding acid to milk causes the milk to curdle as the proteins separate out forming small curds as shown in the picture below.. Some very fresh cheeses such as Indian Paneer are made this way. 

Adding acid to milk causes it to curdle. Not always the result we want. Image by Cathy Davies.

 If we let bacteria make the acid from the lactose present in the milk, the acid forms more slowly forming firmer curds. When a hard cheese is made, the moisture content is also reduced, which is something we will discuss in the next HARM post..

While acid is a way to make food safe, it should not be the only way we rely on nor should it be a substitute for a food safety plan. One lapse in safety could cause an outbreak of Salmonella and lead to a multi-million dollar lawsuit and/or an expensive recall. Don’t leave the safety of your consumers and the security of your business to chance; schedule your free food safety coaching call NOW!

I’m writing a book!

A woman working at a laptop computer

There are millions of people that are going hungry in the USA and billions worldwide at time that food is apparently cheap.

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, or even my old blog in the past, you have been part of my journey. I started my business because I couldn’t find opportunities that would allow me to strengthen the food system while using my technical knowledge. I love food science.  I love how I can help small emerging food businesses with their food safety and coach them to make great products at the same time. I am proud that I know why bread goes brown when you toast it and how it goes stale when you leave it on the counter. I also think it is important that scientists are aware of the wider implications of their work. This larger picture, however, is lacking in the education of food scientists. Very few are taught about the implications of the food industry and research on the food system or on consumers.. 

To fill this gap, I am writing a book under contract with Springer, called Food Science and Food Systems: A Need for Change. I have 10 months to write this! Time is ticking. The purpose of this book, from my perspective, is to introduce food scientists and people working to make the food system stronger to each other! The book will look at the important issues facing our food; such as climate change, social justice, land access, and wellness, and discuss them from my perspective as a food scientist and interview people to get other perspectives. 

As well as interviews, there will also be case studies throughout the book, showing how food is affected by the issues. Chocolate is one such case study; milk is another. 

Want to know more? Sign up for my newsletter so that you get regular news from me about my book. Want to be interviewed for the book? Sign up here.

Heat, Acid, Reduced Moisture (HARM): How Food is Processed to Increase Safety. Part 1: Heat

Pan on stove with lid being opened. What is inside? Is the food being cooked properly?

Foodborne illness outbreaks are happening all the time, This is very worrying for me, both as a consumer and a food safety consultant. As a consumer, how can I know if food is safe? How can I make food safer in my own home? As a food safety consultant, my constant questions are what can my clients do to make their products as safe as possible. Fortunately there are proven solutions that food manufacturers and processors can try to ensure their products are both safe and are great tasting products. This article considers how food can be processed to increase safety..

For food entrepreneurs, you will  be glad to know that there are ways to ensure that the food you are making is as safe as possible. As I mentioned in an earlier post, prerequisite programs such as sanitation and personnel management are the core of any food safety plan. As we look at the food itself we need to consider how we can process the food to reduce the number of microorganisms in the food and prevent further growth. There are three main ways by which we can stop foodborne pathogens being in our food. I am calling the three ways, HARM, because if you don’t do one of these you will cause harm. HARM, as you can see in the title, stands for heat, acid, reduced moisture. 

Measuring the temperature of food is good first step to controlling foodborne pathogens.
Food Safety can be increased if we heat food and if we cool food correctly. Image by Cathy Davies

In this post I consider the first of three ways that we can use to reduce/prevent microorganisms, which is the most common way to remove microorganisms by using heat. No one likes being boiled, microorganisms are no exception. We can either kill all of them by heating the food to a really high temperature, this is called sterilization. Or we can heat the food to a reasonably high temperature to kill off the pathogenic microorganisms. This is pasteurization. In food that has been pasteurized, it still contains some microorganisms. However, because the heat treatment isn’t too severe, the flavor is less affected by processing.

Clip art of milk carton to show that milk is processed and packaged.
Image from Pixabay

Milk is a classic example that can be heat treated in both these ways. Confusingly there are three ways to pasteurize milk, the most common way for pasteurizing liquid milk is called high temperature short time (HTST) when milk is heated to 72 C (161 F) for 15-20 sec. Milk treated in this way still has to be refrigerated and has a shelf life of a couple of weeks. Sterilized milk is shelf stable and is either canned and heated at 116 C (240 F) for twenty minutes or it is aseptically packaged after being heated at 135-150 C (275-302 F) for 4-15 sec. Aseptic packaging means that everything in the processing line is sterile, including the pipes and the packaging, as well as the food. Obviously, processing this way also extends the shelf life as well as increasing the safety of the product.

We can also reduce heat to make a product safer. However, this doesn’t remove microorganisms and once the food is back in the danger zone between 4 and 60 C (40 and 140 F) the microorganisms will start growing again. Additionally some microorganisms, Listeria monocytogenes in particular, continue to reproduce at low temperatures and are a problem in refrigerated foods.

Remember the most important thing is to make sure you are producing food safely. Unsure if you producing food safely, click here to schedule a free food safety strategy call.

Why is Food Processed?

All food is processed, even washing counts!

Do you like to eat? 

Would you eat something that looked or tasted unappetizing?

Do you want the food you eat to not make you ill? 

Do you eat food for its nutritional value?

Do you want food you buy to last a few days before it goes off? 

These are four reasons I can think of why food should be processed. In a more formal terminology, the reasons food is processed are:

  1. To make food palatable/food quality
  2. To make food safe
  3. To extend the shelf-life
  4. To improve nutrient availability
Some homemade bread rolls.
Bread Rolls. Image by Cathy Davies

This list is not mutually exclusive. For example when we bake bread we are processing the flour and other ingredients to make it taste better at the same time by heating the bread we are making it safer. When we pasteurize milk, we are making milk safer to drink AND we are extending the shelf-life. If we want to sell food, we have to make sure our food is tasty first and then we can worry about the other three reasons for processing.

We could just eat everything raw. There is a raw food diet. Even then the fruit and vegetables need to be cleaned, chopped, juiced, blended. It also takes a lot more effort to digest the calories and nutrients we need. This might be a good thing during an obesity epidemic. However, unless we are very careful raw food is more likely to have microorganisms, which includes those that cause foodborne illness

Rows of fresh produce. We could eat them raw, I suppose.
We could eat everything raw I suppose. I’m not sure about raw eggplants though. What do you think?

In the next few weeks, I am going to dive deeper into these four reasons and how food is processed to achieve what end result. To help me write for you let me know in the comments if you are processing or manufacturing food and which of the four reasons listed above does your processing method fulfill?

In the meantime, remember that the most important thing you need to know about food processing is to make sure your facility is up to code to process food safely. Unsure if you are up to code, click here to schedule a call

What to do about Romaine?

Outbreaks in Romaine Lettuce continue
Image by BlackRiv from Pixabay

There have been five outbreaks of E. coli O157 H7 in Romaine lettuce in the last two years. FIVE!

What the h*ll is going on and what can we do about it?

E. coli O157 H7 and similar strains that produce Shiga toxin are collectively known at STEC.

I just read an article about how to “solve” the problem of STEC in Romaine Lettuce and that reminded me that I had also read Bill Marler’s suggestion that Romaine lettuce has a warning label. In the article Stephen M  Ostroff, former deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration, writes:

“The natural reservoir for this pathogen is ruminant animals, especially cattle. Moreover, one particular strain of E. coli seems to have found a home in the growing regions of central coastal California, returning each fall near the end of the growing season.”

Stephen M Ostroff, Washington Post Nov 26 2019

STEC are endemic in cattle, so that’s what he means when he says “natural reservoir”. Similarly in the US, Salmonella is endemic in chicken and in the UK, Campylobacter appears to be endemic in chicken. I don’t know why exactly. There has been some discussion on the levels of STEC in grass-fed versus feedlot cattle, which I will have to research to check what the results were..

Since the Jack in the Box hamburger outbreak of STEC, manufacturers selling ground beef are required to test their meat to ensure that it is free of the pathogen. They are not allowed to ship ground beef with STEC in it because then it would be considered adulterated and they would be selling their meat illegally. In 1999, that regulations was extended to intact beef as well as ground beef. Beef producers were also required to write HACCP plans to show that they were reducing the risk of contamination from STEC and how they were testing and sampling for STEC. In 2012 this was extended to 6 further STEC that are not O157 H7. 

Perhaps we need to do this for leafy greens too? No shipping of product until you can GUARANTEE that there is no STEC in your lettuce.

Do you know the risks and hazards in your food products? Are you 1000% controlling those hazards? Are you willing to gamble your business and the health of your consumers on this? Don’t leave something this important to chance. Schedule a free Food Safety Strategy Call NOW to check. Do not wait until your hazards are out of control!

The Missing Ingredient From Food Systems Change.

Pea pod with one red pea and the rest green. Why the red pea?

An alarming trend I noticed at the many food systems conferences I attended this year – many of the new people I meet, even though they work in food and in food systems organizations, do not know what food science is and how food science must be another tool in strengthening the food system. Do you know what a food scientist is and how what they do might strengthen the food system?

Food scientists need to know more about food systems
This food scientist needs to learn about food systems change so he can make products that will support a resilient and sustainable food system. Image from Pixabay.

I wrote an introduction to food science on my first blog. Since that time the Institute of Food Technologists has updated their definition of food science:

“Food science is the study of the physical, biological, and chemical makeup of food; the causes of food deterioration; and the concepts underlying food processing.”

As a food chemist who is interested in the changes in food during processing and storage, my research is covered by this definition. However, as a food safety consultant and someone who is interested in the larger picture of food system change, I see a whole lot missing. Even in the realm of science, this definition doesn’t include sensory science and the psychology and sociology of our food choices. If food scientists ignored that, we would have a problem with our food supply. 

Oh! Wait! 

We do have a problem with our food supply! Perhaps this is explained by the fact that food scientists ignore the psychological and sociological implications of their science

Food science can support food systems change by helping local food entrepreneurs produce sustainable food.
Food science can support food systems change by helping local food entrepreneurs produce sustainable food. Image by Robyn Wright from Pixabay

Do food scientists have a responsibility to make sure our food supply is of high quality and doesn’t make people and our planet ill? As shown by the definition of  food science from UC Davis the word “wholesome” is thrown around:

“Food Science is a convenient name used to describe the application of scientific principles to create and maintain a wholesome food supply.”

What does a wholesome food supply look like anyway? I’m not sure that I know TBH! There are lots of ideas of what a wholesome food supply would look like. Probably as many ideas as there are people on the planet.

Food scientists are varied and have many interests. Unlike chefs, we aren’t necessarily interested in making food to eat straight away, but mostly looking at the underlying principles that go into a food. Not all food scientists can cook or understand how our research affects the food on your plate. Others dissect their cooking to find out exactly what happened to get the food the way it is (I’m totally guilty)!! We are mostly interested in how food behaves and how it can be altered, for good and bad. 

A food scientist can definitely help you make a better, safer food product while remaining true to your values. Arrange a free food safety strategy session NOW! 

Ode to Bread

Some homemade bread rolls.

I’ve been watching the climate change protests in London and since I can’t be there, I decided, after reading Jackie Morris’s idea of bringing the protests to her home, to recite poems or read something about food every week on my public space, here on my blog!

This poem and the future readings are to remind you that our beautiful planet is currently able to produce plentiful food for us all. A situation that might not exist when climate change occurs in full force.

If you have a poem, story or reading about food that you would like me to read one week, please put a link or a reference in the comments.

Here is an Ode to Bread by Pablo Neruda.

Ode to Bread by Pablo Neruda

Chocolate Origins

Squares of dark chocolate

Where does chocolate come from? We know that it comes from beans grown by the Theobroma cacao tree. What we don’t know is where cacao was first domesticated. How many of us think of the Aztecs in Mexico eating mole or drinking a spicy hot chocolate drink? Well it seems that chocolate wasn’t first domesticated in Mexico as we thought. Mexico was just where the Europeans first saw chocolate being used and cultivated. This theory of chocolate domestication was recently proved to be wrong or at least questionable.

Currently even the people studying the origin of chocolate are in disagreement. One theory has it that cacao was introduced to Mexico and central America some 2-10,000 years ago from the wild cacao varieties present in the Upper Amazon (Northern South America) such as Ecuador and then domesticated about 3-4000 years ago.. Alternatively, there is evidence suggesting that the chocolate tree was domesticated in the upper Amazon region 5-6000 years ago and then spread by trade to Mexico and central America.

Does it really matter? If we know more about a plant’s origins we have better access to its ancestral gene bank. This gives us access to genetic diversity which we can use if disease occurs that threaten our current domesticated cacao trees. Oh nos, we don’t want chocolate going the way of the banana, which perennially crops up (oops sorry not sorry) as being a genetic deadend and not being around much longer.

Access to a variety of cacao genes, gives us access to different types of chocolate. Each type of chocolate can give us different flavors and colors.

This image is by my brother who wasn’t very impressed with this kitkat made of ruby cocoa. Perhaps maintaining the red color reduced the flavor. I have a few friends who don’t like chocolate and a few more who won’t eat it because of all the sugar added. Perhaps we could use some of the older varieties of cacao to get some new flavors and make more interesting chocolate that isn’t full of sugar. 

Do you have a chocolate based product you want more people to know about? Message me and I’ll feature a link to your product in this post.

Food Poisoning

What's a bus got to do with food poisoning?
Indian Food is So Good. This meal did not make me ill. This is a really tasty meal that is perfectly safe! Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Have you ever had food poisoning? The first time I remember was when I was 13 or 14. My French exchange student was visiting my family after I had visited her in Lyons in the spring. So this memory is from early summer.

My family had a big event at a local grand Indian restaurant. Usually we had take away curry from the local Indian restaurant at the end of our street: The kitchen table groaning with different options as we did, and still do, order too much. We all have our favorites!! This time though we went out for a meal that happened to be a curry. 

The next day, Dad took myself and my French exchange pal to Ludlow. Note this was a bus trip as neither of my parents drive. So I am sitting on the bus, the very full bus, and my belly starts hurting and moving and doing all kinds of painful, weird out of control things. 

Remember I am on a bus. Busses do not have toilets. 

What's a bus got to do with food poisoning?
I like travelling using public transport. It can be very unpleasant to travel when you are ill. Image by Emslichter from Pixabay

I am feeling rather green with my internal body being completely out of my control. I am clenching everything from my mouth to my butt to try to control what is happening in my digestive system. If you’ve had food poisoning you know exactly what I mean.

As we pulled into Ludlow, I threw up. Right down the center aisle of the bus. In front of everyone. EVERYONE. It was awful. I was so embarrassed and I was also worried more was going to happen if I didn’t get off the bus RIGHT THEN and find a restroom. 

I’m still cringing at the memory. And clenching everything like I did back then. 

 I was lucky that time. I only felt ill for a short time. I’ve had worse bouts of foodborne illness since. This was the most embarrassing because of the public nature of my illness and being a teenager. I was with a person my age who was a visitor to my country and I am sort of trying to impress because French and exchange student. Food poisoning took every chance of me being cool away. It took me years before I could even look at a curry again. Decades. I was in my mid 20s when I did my PhD in Leeds and “going for a curry” was a regular social activity. There were a lot of Indian/Pakistani restaurants in West Yorkshire as there was a large Asian immigrant population. Curries were cheap and apparently tasty! I slowly coached myself into eating them again. At first I drowned my curry with raita (cucumber and yogurt) and eventually I was able to have more curry and less raita. I still like raita!

Now I know about foodborne illness and different symptoms and situations that can lead to foodborne illness, I suppose the cause was Bacillus cereus which is commonly found in rice that has been left out after cooking and reheated.

Rice can be a source of foodborne illness if it is not stored properly Image by amarnath jaganathan from Pixabay

Do you remember your first time you had food poisoning? Do you want another teenager to suffer food poisoning because they ate something you made without following correct food safety procedures? Ensure your product is safe by scheduling a food strategy call NOW! Don’t wait.

My Vision

Food science can support food systems change by helping local food entrepreneurs produce sustainable food.
Where are we going next? Image by Lorri Lang from Pixabay

After reading this article on leadership, I started exploring what leadership meant for me. As one of the key features of a leader is having a vision. I wondered what really is my vision for the future? I know I want to live in a world where no one lacks food, so perhaps I should start there. This is what I came up.

  • I imagine a world where everyone has enough food to eat that fits with their definition of healthy and fresh. Food eaten is locally grown and/or processed and shared within a community.
  • I imagine a world where food waste isn’t given away to people who lack food because there are no people without food.
  • I imagine a world where no one has diseases caused by the lack of healthy food, with no diabetes, heart disease or deficiency diseases.
  • I imagine a world with no foodborne illness.
  • I imagine a world where everyone knows how to grow and cook their own food if they want to.
  • I imagine a world where everybody knows what goes in their food and they know where their food comes from. 
Why is food given a moral value?
Food does not have a moral value. Image by Christian Dorn from Pixabay
  • I imagine a world where certain foods are not good or evil. Food does not have a moral value. Where everyone has the choice to eat healthy or not and no one feels guilty for what they eat and no one feels guilty for their size.
  • I imagine a world without diet-culture, fat-shaming and food police. Where eating the occasional cookie or piece of cake is not a guilty pleasure.
  • I imagine a world where farmers are fairly compensated for their labor and respected for their expertise.
  • I imagine a world where all food workers are respected and acknowledged for their skills and paid a living wage.
Shared kitchens are great for people starting a food business.
A good place to start a food business is a commercially licensed shared ktichen. Image by Robyn Wright from Pixabay
  • I imagine a world where everyone who wants it has access to a commercial kitchen, and a garden. They also have access to expertise to help them grow and create the food they want to sell.
  • I imagine a world where food is currency and so important that everyone wants to know the latest food news.
  • I imagine a world where food is front and center of all government policies. That food self-sufficiency and resilience are the guiding forces of policy decisions and cooperation is also a guiding force here.
  • I imagine a world where everyone has equal access to land, housing, education, and healthcare.
  • I imagine a world without any fear.
  • I imagine living free from all prejudice. Where there is no “them” and “us”. It is all “we”.
Everyone is equal Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

What’s your vision for the future? Let me know in the comments below and I hope we can work together making out futures come true.