Keeping Food Safe

By Greg Stiles Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Getting into business as a food entrepreneur sounds fun right? What could be better than baking, mixing, cooking and then sharing your delicious creations with the world?  As women in business who have spent time in the food business will tell you, there are also a whole lot of headaches involved; specifically surrounding regulations and certifications.  You can do it, just make sure you are aware of the many of the rules, regulations and tests required.

Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.

Food safety issues from allergens to contaminants have revolutionized the way producers and processors run their businesses. For Rising Sun Farms, it means codifying and documenting the direction it has been heading for years.

Before the local food manufacturer's organic cheese tortas, party tortas, pestos and DipnSpreads are distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada, they undergo multiple tests and analyses that are documented for future inspection. Ingredients from 150 suppliers are checked and re-checked before and after arriving in the Rogue Valley as part of the Safe Quality Food certification process recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Diligent attention to potential risks involves commitment of resources by producers and manufacturers that eventually equate to higher prices at checkout counters.

"There is an enormous amount of verification and process documentation," said Rising Sun Farms founder Elizabeth Fujas, whose firm holds Level 3 certification, the highest standard.

Rising Sun has two staff members -- a production quality manager and an SQF practitioner -- assigned to record findings and vet suppliers.

"We have to do a certificate of analysis with every shipment that the product has been lab tested for yeast, mold and all kinds of bacteria," Fujas said. "It's expensive, but it's a very good process."

Rising Sun Farms has about 125 suppliers, including 20 from Oregon and five in Jackson County. Certification standards have modestly thinned the ranks of suppliers, some who didn't want to deal with the extra costs, she said.

"We didn't lose a lot, but we lost some that are hard to replace," Fujas said. "We had to reformulate (a product) for a different kind of ingredient when one supplier in Seattle said 'Nope, I'm not doing it.' It takes a lot of time for a business to get approval from headquarters to say, 'Yes, we have to do this and dedicate the resources.'"

The practical implications can hit small producers as well.

"We just can't go out and buy basil from a local farmer who wants to sell us 20 pounds of basil, we have to have it tested and a system has to be in place."

For a plant such as basil, the issue isn't likely with the way it's grown, but there may be contamination issues because of the way it's washed and cleaned.

"There has to be a standard for it," she said. "After it's tested, we can use the product."

As the federal government has instituted new safety measures, retailers have responded with their own requirements.

Retailers are playing an ever-increasing role in Rising Sun Farms' future. Five years ago, a large grocery chain put out the word to food manufacturers that it would no longer do business with vendors that weren't SQF qualified.

"Since then, most retailers have jumped on the bandwagon," Fujas said.

Rigorous tests and inspections are nothing new to many food manufacturers, especially those who deal with meat products.

Jerky maker Gary West Meats President Paul Murdoch routinely works under the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversight as part of its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program.

Under the HACCP, companies create plans approved by the USDA.

"We have an inspector on site every day," Murdoch said. "His job is to make sure we're following our own plan."

Every jerky batch undergoes five tests, he said, ranging from time and temperature computations to water activity levels.

"We feel our process is bullet-proof," he said.

For Talent entrepreneur Michael Antonopoulos, whose TonTon's Artisan Affections launched in 2012, multiple certifications are still a ways off. He is certified by the state agriculture department, but doesn't have third-party endorsements.

"We're setting up ourselves to qualify for non GMO-certification, benefit company certification and preparing for a FDA third-party food safety audit as well; that's how we built our kitchen," he says.

"For a small organization such as ours, those kinds of licenses and certifications would cost approximately $5,000 a year. For non-GMO certification, that would be $5,000 not going to something else. At this point, that's not available to us, but most of the paperwork is done."

Food safety and quality control are a part of the growing cost to consumers, Fujas said.

"We haven't really increased our prices," she said. "But prices escalate as distributors want higher margins when their cost of business is higher. Whether for labor issues or insurance, the cost of doing business has gone up. Retailers are looking for higher margins, too."

Rising Sun's business model has evolved for a number of reasons. There is no longer an in-house sales and wine tasting room. The recession played a role as did traffic patterns, Fujas said.

The production line runs three overlapping shifts 14 hours a day, Monday through Thursday, with a staff of 35 much of the year, expanding to 65 during the fall as holiday inventory is built up.

Elizabeth and Richard Fujas launched their enterprise in 1982, pioneering the use of organic ingredients in their tortas. After stepping back for a few years, Fujas said she has reasserted herself in day-to-day operations, such as procurement.

"We're doing a lot more food service now because larger companies are requiring certification," Fujas said. "We're doing more formulization for customers that want products in bigger size and batches."

The manufacturer is also developing a prototype of a .65-ounce dip serving for an airline.

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