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OSU makes sure fancy foods are safe to eat

You're aisle surfing at a gourmet grocery store. A milk chocolate bar with smoked bacon catches your eye, as well as the Austrian pumpkin seed pesto. You think, "I could make something like this." You've got a dynamite recipe for fennel-cayenne beets marinated in champagne vinegar and walnut oil. You picture your face on a label. You see yourself preparing the recipe on "Good Morning America." And soon your company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. You sell it for $750 million. You've made it.

Now, come back to reality. Back to Aisle 5. You don't know how to do any of this. You've never canned anything in your life, and the only thing you've tried to sell was a bathroom sink on Craigslist.

And what about food safety? Have you thought about that? That's where food scientists from Oregon State University come in. They can help keep your million-dollar idea from becoming a million-dollar lawsuit. They advise makers of specialty foods how to make their products safely.

So what's special about specialty foods? They might be distinctive for their ethnic origin, superior ingredients, limited supply, or extraordinary processing procedures. They might be jam or olive oil, but they're ratcheted up a notch, such as vinegar reinvented as balsamic infused with peach pulp. Sales of specialty foods in 2010 totaled $70 billion and represented 13 percent of all retail food sales, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. It's a business that's twice the size of Costa Rica's gross domestic product.

As the industry grows, OSU food scientists increasingly receive inquiries from epicurean entrepreneurs about specialty foods, said Yanyun Zhao, a value-added food products specialist with the OSU Extension Service. Zhao is concerned that people new to the business may not know all it takes to properly process food and may be unaware of licensing and inspection requirements. Some products could harbor harmful microorganisms if particular methods of preservation are not used, she said. And uncommon ingredients could lead to allergic reactions.

Her concerns are real. An outbreak of Salmonella bacteria that sickened people in 46 states during 2008 and 2009 was caused by contaminated peanut products and resulted in one of the country's largest food recalls. A quick look at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recall list offers more examples: frozen bean burgers recalled for potential Salmonella contamination; stone-fired pizza with roasted vegetables possibly containing plastic fragments; and Leicestershire blue-veined cheese suspected of harboring Listeria monocytogenes.

The U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year in the U.S., foodborne diseases sicken roughly one in six people (or 48 million) and kill 3,000. Salmonella alone racks up $365 million in direct medical costs each year. Hoping to decrease these numbers, the federal government gave safe food a seat at the table when it passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. The law shifts the focus of federal regulators more toward preventing contamination instead of merely responding to it.

pickling asparagus
Students pickle asparagus during a workshop at OSU for people who want to make and sell fancy foods from fruits and vegetables. Photo by Tiffany Woods.

To address the problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded OSU $400,000 to help inspectors and manufacturers of specialty products learn how to ensure food safety. As part of that effort, Zhao and her OSU colleagues developed a course on campus for people who aspire to make specialty fruit and vegetable products. They crammed three terms of science into three days, with hands-on activities at OSU's food processing plant.

In one activity, OSU senior faculty research assistant Brian Yorgey taught the kitchen chemistry of making low-sugar jelly. Wearing a hair net over his gray beard, Yorgey prompted his lab-coat-wearing students: "In jams and jellies, what's the important thing? Water activity." Water activity measures how much water is available for microbes to grow. The lower the number, the safer the product. The number can be decreased by adding sugar which binds up some of the water. Harmful bacteria don't grow when water activity is less than 0.85, but yeast and molds still do.

The students set to work, measuring pectin, peeling ginger, and boiling juice to kill possible molds and bacteria. "I'm so new at this that any education is going to benefit me," said Polly Wilson. She and her husband, Dan, developed a fiery smoked pepper powder they call Hell Dust that Polly sells at markets and online for nearly $9 a jar. The OSU course will help the Wilsons ensure the safety of their pepper powder, as well as a new tomato-based dipping sauce and a smoky salsa they've developed using vegetables from their own Junction City acreage.

The students learned more about water activity as they sampled apple rings just removed from a dehydrator. They had drowned the fruit in pineapple and mango concentrate and calculated how much sugar from the concentrate diffused into the apples and how much water was pulled out. The increased sugar meant they didn't have to dry the fruit as much to extend its shelf life: the sugar acted as a preservative by reducing the available moisture.

dried fruit
Students dried this fruit (above) and pickled this asparagus (below) during a workshop at OSU. Photos by Tiffany Woods.
pickled asparagus

Increased acid is another aid in food preservation. Acidity is measured as pH on a scale from 0 to 14, where the lower the pH, the higher the acidity. Food with a pH above 4.6 is considered to be low-acid and can harbor spores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. These spores are not destroyed in boiling water, even though the bacterium itself is destroyed, and they can grow into new bacteria which produce a toxin that is often fatal, paralyzing muscles and shutting down your respiratory system. Low-acid foods with added acid to bring the pH below 4.6 can be processed in boiling water and safely stored at room temperature.

"One thing I want to make sure you remember is that the pH has to be below 4.6," Yorgey reminded the students as they began pickling asparagus, stuffing spears into jars with mustard seeds, peppercorns, and red pepper flakes. The place smelled of garlic and vinegar. Machinery hummed in the background as students made a brine of salt and vinegar, two ingredients that prevent C. botulinum from forming toxins. The salt helps the "good" lactic acid bacteria overcome bad bacteria and molds. Yorgey poured the brine into the packed jars and submerged them in boiling water to seal lids and destroy potential bacteria.

OSU Extension's food safety specialist, Mark Daeschel, knows all about bacteria. The soft-spoken microbiologist with mad-scientist eyebrows is recognized by the FDA as an expert in evaluating the safety of acidified foods (like salad dressings and pickles) or low-acid canned foods (like beans and corn). Federal regulations require commercial processors of such foods to have authorities like Daeschel scrutinize their products and processing methods. Daeschel, who has testified as an expert witness in food safety litigation cases involving Odwalla juice and Jack in the Box burgers, is the expert to whom state and federal agencies refer people when they inquire about thermally processing acidified foods.

If you run across heat-processed acidified products developed in Oregon in the last 10 years, it's likely that a test sample passed through Daeschel's hands. He evaluated more than 200 products last year, the most ever in a single year, and about three-quarters of them passed on their first inspection. The most common was barbecue sauce.

During an inspection, Daeschel reviews a written step-by-step description of how the product was processed. In the case of jams and jellies, he dabs a spoonful onto a refractometer to make sure they contain at least 65 percent sugar to qualify as such foods. If something seems not quite right, he'll place a sample under a microscope to look for Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. He pokes an electrical probe into the product to make sure the pH is 4.6 or less. After a product gets his seal of approval, he writes a green-light letter to the FDA. If the product doesn't pass, Daeschel explains how the processor could fix the problem.

measuring fruit juice
Cyndi Snegirev, a berry farmer in Hubbard, pours pomegranate concentrate under the watchful eye of OSU food scientist Yanyun Zhao. Photo by Tiffany Woods.

Daeschel and Zhao teach a variety of classes for processors, including one for businesses that produce acidified and low-acid foods. The FDA requires that these companies have a supervisor on site who has passed such a course. Nearly 90 people attended this year's course at OSU, including employees from Ocean Spray, Starbucks, and Harry and David. They were joined by fellow students such as Rhonda Zathan, a grandmother from Camas Valley who wants to sell her pineapple-jalapeño sauce, and James Hall, a sauté chef in Portland who wants to turn his "Crazy Juice" hot sauce into a moneymaker.

Brian Yorgey, this time sporting a traffic-stopping turquoise T-shirt and matching shoelaces, described how leaky vacuum seals on jars are like an "eight-lane highway" for microorganisms. For some bacteria, just one cell can divide and turn into one billion cells in 15 hours. "We're trying to make a killer product and not kill people," he said. "You spend all this time and money making a good product and if you don't handle the containers properly, you can lose everything."

Down the hall from the acidified foods course, cheese makers were learning how to keep their products safe to eat. Lisbeth Goddik, the dairy processing specialist with the OSU Extension Service, organized this workshop with consultant Fons Smits, the manager of Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Illinois, thanks to an endowment from Paul and Sandra Arbuthnot.

What's striking about the food safety aspect of cheese making is how focused it is on the minutiae of cleanliness. It's not enough to have the right salt content, temperature, and pH to outsmart bad bacteria. The facilities have to be spotless. That's because creameries, with their warm and moist environment, are playgrounds for bacteria. There are vats of warm milk to dive into; tables to slide on; walls to cling to; hoses to hide in; cheese rounds to snack on. Rich in nutrients, milk is the perfect food for these rambunctious, single-celled bodies.

Cheese makers Dominic Catino and his wife, Summer, were building their Quail Run Creamery in Gaston when Summer took Goddik's workshop at OSU. At the Catinos' request, Goddik and Smits later toured their creamery to offer tips on how to further reduce the risk of contamination. Goats bleated as Dominic wrote down recommendations: Change shoes and clothes when going from the barn to the creamery. Install hand sanitizers—the kind that use elbows, not hands, to activate. Use color-coded brushes and brooms: red for the floor, blue for cleaning, and white for everything that comes in contact with food. The Catinos later passed a state inspection, and their facility is now licensed.

It takes hard work to get a product to market and make sure it's safe. But creameries and other makers of specialty foods don't have to go it alone. With pH probes in hand and pasteurization vats standing by, OSU is here to help.

See more information about the Northwest Specialty Food Network.