Russian Sanctions – Feed the People

Today the European Union has earmarked $167 million to reimburse farmers for curbing yield and not harvesting vegetables intended for export to Russia.  This in direct response to the recent announcement  of sanctions against those involved in the ‘wrong’ side of the Ukraine situation.

Say what you will about the politics of the events.  That is not what I want to discuss.  What I want to discuss is how, with millions of people starving both in 3rd world and industrialized countries, why would reducing yields and rotting in the fields be the first course of action?  Couldn’t that $167,000,000 be used for distribution channels to get this food into the hands of the people who need it?

We, as food producers, first and foremost should feed people.  I can not believe the farmers feel good about not harvesting what they put so much work into.  Their prime concern, justifiably, is to get paid for their work.

I admit to not understanding this non-harvest tactic.  America does the same, either paying people not to farm land or subsidizing lower yields to control volume.  I understand the attempt to control demand to boost price but it seems the benefit in this instance would be worth the cost – which is going to be spent either way.

Something to consider……

All Natural *

Alas – here we go again.

What does All Natural mean to you?  The current adage is ask 10 people and get 10 different answers.  Actually whether you know what all natural means also depends largely upon your background and your knowledge.

As anyone who reads this site regularly, you know that my background is meat and poultry.  I’ve worked in that industry for over 20 years and I know what all natural means when it appears on a label – or at least I think I do.  I’ve done my fair share of label submittals documenting why my products were all natural.  I’ve worked with USDA to explain what, when and how.  I’ve attended public and industry meetings and hearings where very smart folks have argued why the addition of sodium nitrate shouldn’t render a product not all natural.

When I first began work in industry a USDA label specialist explained their approval of all natural as something that a home consumer could do to the product – grind it, slice it, cook it, marinate it.  That was pretty clear to me and how I’ve always associated the term.  Do you run breast cages through a Wolfking to produce MSP? Not likely to be labeled all natural.  Addition of various chemicals and preservatives? Not likely to be labeled all natural.  Think of the USDA required note All Natural * Minimally Processed, No Artificial Ingredients.

The recent hub bub as detailed by General Mills Class Action Lawsuit and Kashi to drop ‘All Natural’ claim as well as FDA comments and other news agencies picking up a story and providing expert opinions on something they really know little about is making matters worse.  For the most part, the issue is consumers not understanding nor caring to learn what food terms mean.  Like it or not, as a consumer, it is our responsibility to understand where our money is going and what the terms mean.  Granted, as a ‘industry insider’ I have insight other may not but the information is available to all.  I know nothing about cleaning products.  If I decide to buy certified organic cleaning products it is my responsibility to determine what that means and whether I am willing to spend more for the product.  The company has the responsibility to not mislead me but proper use of a defined term should not be viewed as misleading.  But in reality that’s where the problem for All Natural arises.

USDA has a plain definition.  FDA does not.  Couple that with the fact that FDA has no label review and approval process (USDA does) and the term Natural has gotten an undeserved worthless term reputation.  The non-meat food world uses the term loosely with little definition.  Consumers don’t separate the meat world from the other but those of us in industry do making the issue to a consumer much larger than it may seem to me.

The amount of press this topic has gotten yet again in recent days will hopefully move government officials to address it once and for all.  It’s all well and good for USDA to sit on their pedestal and say “we have a definition” but if the general consumer doesn’t understand nor differentiate the problem is not going to go away.  Distrust is the US food system is at an all time high.  It is our (industry and government) responsibility to improve this opinion.  The vast majority of companies do not intend to mislead their customers and if we could only develop an easily understood and simple to enforce program I believe it would be adhered to by industry and embraced by consumers.  I’m willing to do my part – are you?

The Deep of Winter

Most of the country is coming into and out of periods of extreme cold.  To some its normal to others its unusual – to all it causes a time for to slow down.  The food industry is not immune to this experience.  Livestock grow a bit slower (and eat a bit more), vegetable growers, even greenhouses, have a period of rest to break pest cycles and allow for soil revival.  Chocolate factories are working away stocking up for valentine’s day.  Enjoy the winter my friends.  The growth season will be here before you know it.

How do I stack up?

So, you’ve received the results of your SQF audit.  Pleased or disappointed with the results you’re probably wondering how you compare to others in your industry.  SQFI does an outstanding job of presenting common non-conformitieis and offers the following for the 2012 audit year:

Safe Quality Foods Top Ten Non Conformities

  •       Records                                         53.64%
  •       Business Continuity Plan              52.53%
  •     Premise & Equipment                    50.79%
  •   Cleaning & Sanitation                   50.45%
  •       Food Safety Plan                           49.55%
  •     Dust, Fly & Vermin Proofing         49.42%
  •   Equipment, Utensils                      47.69%
  •     Walls, Partitions, Doors                45.74%
  •     Control of Foreign Matter            44.06%
  •     Floors, Drains and Waste Traps    41.99%

Simply put – 53.64% of the facilities undergoing an SQF audit in 2012 were cited for a records deviation.  Wow – more than half.  That reflects two things:

1.  the amount of records being generated by the facility and reviewed by the auditor.  For a 2 1/2 day facility audit you can expect at least 50% of that time will be on records review.

2.  it’s easy to make a mistake on records.  With the amount of data we are generating, relying on people to correctly measure and document the facts, then another whole new set of people reviewing the documentation to make sure no mistakes were made you can imagine that something at some point will be missed.

The good news is that most of these findings aren’t trends but merely single data points.  If you’ve identified a trend in your documentation failures then you have an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.  Your documentation is your lifeline to compliance.  The only method you have to prove long after the fact that your took appropriate correction action and how you reached your conclusions.

I remain surprised that Business Continuity Plans continue to rank so high on the list.  When first introduced that industry as a whole struggled with how, when and why but over time it’s become clearer and more common.  Challenge your system!  What are you going to do when that storm every 100 years hits?  What if an irate employee gained access to your facility?  How would you handle it?  Where would you meet?  Who would be in charge?  What about the press? your employees?   their families?  your customers?  Taking the time now to seriously walk through the steps could help you make the right decisions in the event of a disaster.  Count me as one who feels the time spent now will be worth it.

Need help with any of these findings or preparation for your next audit?  Please contact us!  We’d love to help.

Food Ingenuity

Why do I love working in the food industry?  The reasons are many but right at the top of that list is the wealth of talent that exists.  Technology tends to get the gold star for forwarding thinking.  The food manufacturers tend to plod behind – slow and steady.  But when innovation takes place sometimes it just knocks your socks off.

As was the case for me yesterday as I was purchasing groceries.  Enter canned vegetables – a true staple and the epitome of consistent.  Canned vegetables, for the most part, remain as they did when your grandparents first started purchasing canned goods at the store in lieu of canning their own.

Welcome to the 21st century:



Green Giant has found a way to vacuum steam without liquid – resulting in crisper product that weighs a mere fraction of the former.  The cans are smaller with the same amount of product; the cans are lighter meaning less transportation cost for them.  The smaller size takes up less space on the shelf – creating more opportunity for other products.  And the taste is fantastic.  A total home run for both the company (cost savings) and the consumer (lighter, easier to store and handle, better product).  Just one of the many reasons I love my job every day.

USDA pilot program fails to stop contaminated meat

How’s that for an attention getting headline?  I’m certain that’s what the Washington Post was going for when they published this article in their on-line Politics page this morning.  You can read the whole, fairly inaccurate and definitely sensational, article here.  WAPO Article

It took FSIS approximately 30 minutes before they found the article and offered their own Twitter defense saying that the article was not true, there was no proposed upcoming legislation change and on and on.  Nothing to see here: Please move along.

Reality is that there is some truth from both sides – which is all too often the case.  If only we lived in the land of Good and Evil.  USDA-FSIS has been attempting to significantly reduce their workforce for years.  Who could blame them?  Their workforce is expensive and difficult to manage and, at best, a liability – as is pretty much anyone’s workforce if allowed to run unfettered for decades.  Any attempts to reign in the current inspection force results quickly in two things:

1.  Public outcry that you don’t care about the safety of the food supply

2.  Defense by the inspector’s union without regard to the legitimacy of the request or accusation

A quick review of the comments on the article reveal just what I feared.  “I never thought I’d see a return to the Sinclair novel I read as a child”; “The company can’t possibly be responsible for policing themselves – pressure, firing employees, etc, etc”.  185 comments strong with the majority explaining how this move would be the end of food as we know it.  People dying in the streets.  Food poisoning run rampant.  Apparently these companies don’t have lick one of business sense to understand that it is THEIR name associated with the product and, while the inspectors serve a very important function, they are not the thin red line between safe food and utter mayhem.

I’ve always struggled with inspectors who take this tact.  A lot, perhaps most but not overwhelmingly so, come to work each day and do their best to ensure the product produced under their watch meets the regulatory requirements they are tasked to uphold.  These inspectors are rapidly promoted from line inspection and spend their days overseeing further processing establishments.  This is where their talents are best suited.  I’ve worked with a lot of these people.  They are passionate about their jobs and, while I didn’t always agree with their interpretation of the situation, I did respect where they were coming from.

I’ve lost hope of seeing any additional significant inspection changes in my career (and I’ve got quite a bit of time to go before I hang up my hat).  I was one of the ones who was excited about the introduction of HIMP – 12 YEARS AGO.  It is still considered a pilot project and only just now may it be expanded a bit further.  Hence the noise about increasing inspection speeds to unsafe rates.  With safety and debilitating injuries now getting center stage it will be another decade plus before the next step can be made.  This is truly a shame as, ultimately, no one wins.

We all, industry, government and consumer advocacy groups, want a safe, dependable and cost effective food supply.  Most companies don’t cut corners, a lot of inspectors want what’s best for all, some consumer advocacy groups care about industry as well as their fiefdom.  How successful could we be if, just for once, we set aside the noise and did what was right for the consumer…….


How dirty is your kitchen?

If the recent NSF study is to be believed it is the absolute dirtiest place in your home – a danger to yourself and all who reside with or visit you. Salmonella, E. Coli, Staph and the like are growing strong in your fridge, in your can opener and, in some cases, right there on your counter in plain site.
No surprise, critics have come out of the woodwork to question and poke holes in this article. They have been accused of poor science, lack of detail in their report, publishing something just to get their name out there and many things in between. All by respected scientists, some of whom I’m honored to call friend. Others are arguing that, while the critics may be correct, anything that gets people to understand they should clean their kitchen is worth the effort. Really – clean my kitchen – hmmmm, I’ll have to consider that.
I do admit that I fall on the survival of the fittest end of the survival chain (although my kitchen is for the most part clean). I’ve always believed that immunity is best built through exposure and having raised more than my fair share of infants to adulthood (albeit none in human form) I think that I can support that view with solid data. I was immediately wary of the antimicrobial movement and threw the towel in when they introduced antimicrobial q-tips, which thankfully have since gone away. Seriously people – rub a little dirt in it and get back out there.
So – what’s your take? Can your kitchen be too clean? Does survival of the masses depend upon hand sanitizer at every corner and self opening bathroom doors (don’t get me started on that)? Or are you, like me, willing to accept a bit of risk, follow the 5 second rule and spend time worrying about other imminent disasters?
If you’d like to read the whole bit – please go here:
The Germiest Place in your House

Horse Slaughter – Pros, Cons and the Emotions

On June 28, 2013 FSIS published the updated guidelines for equine slaughter in the US. Less than 1 week later the first grant of inspection was announced to Valley Meats Company located in Roswell, NM with two more expected shortly. Animal Welfare groups immediately filed petitions to halt the anticipated slaughter stating that FSIS was violating current law by allowing equine slaughter to occur.

Horse slaughter has long been a controversial subject in the US. Horse meat is not approved for sale or consumption in the US so many question why the US would even need such a service. As we saw a few years ago when the slaughter was banned there is a need. In 2006 the US Congress defunded domestic horse slaughter effectively shutting down the small industry. This ban was lifted in 2011 and, as such, requests for inspection grants we submitted with the NM grant being the first to make it through the many hurdles.

While there is not a large market for the meat, considered a delicacy in some countries, there is a steady demand for export. Horses are considered pets by most in the US with the exception of the Plain working horses and the race industry. After the closure of plants in 2006 the country saw a significant increase in animals being abandoned and poorly cared for.

While I do not believe that horse slaughter would even become a major force in the US I would caution those in the con camp to look honestly at the need. A regulated, well run industry is far preferred over the 2006 – present environment where lack of humane options caused abandonment and abuse that we all find unacceptable.

GMO Wheat – cutting to the chaff

Just days after the global “March on Monsanto”, USDA-APHIS issued a press release stating that unapproved altered wheat was found growing in a field in Oregon.  While questions remain as to the why and how – reports vary on local farmers reporting, spot testing by the government and the like – the fallout is likely to be quick and fair reaching, at least in the short term.  Monsanto has done itself no favors since their initial release of Round Up Ready Soybeans and have suffered the wrath of many over the past decade.  Opinions vary widely as to the usefulness of GMO grains – fortified rice to bolster 3rd world diets is hard to argue negative but the foray into frost resistant strawberries using Salmon genes gave me the willies.  Broadcast use of pesticides and the as yet unknown implications of GMO spread, combined with the “hidden’ agenda most accuse have led to  fairly universal distrust in the idea.  As for the current environment, Japan has already announced a boycott of all American wheat due to the finding.  A rush to judgement for all combined with the fear that no one will ever stick with the subject long enough to figure out where it actually came from…..

This article depicts the against side very succinctly: