BY: NICOLE ARNOLD & LILY YANG
You’ve perused the farmer’s markets, the grocery aisle, and the multitudes of food stands to find that coveted, delicious, strawberry-rhubarb jam you remember from days long past. You pass by vendors’ tables packed with pickles, hot sauces, and barbecue sauces (did someone say Western North Carolinas? Tennessee? Memphis Rubs?). But let’s be real, no one has a more delicious, more flavorful, or more taste-bud inspiring product than what you can make! What better way to test your grit than by cutting your teeth as a mom-and-pops shop owner — selling small-batch, locally produced, and deliciously sumptuous noms? Time for the world to experience the wonders of YOUR kitchen! With this epiphany you decide to set forth and become the next big food entrepreneur.
But wait! Before you embark upon this adventure of becoming a small business owner, you must navigate through the wild jungle of regulatory agencies, food safety, and business practices. Oh my! Where does one even begin?
While more experienced entrepreneurs may consider themselves well versed in “food talk,” many prospective entrepreneurs may begin this venture with very little knowledge of what a food business entails and even how to initiate this type of process. Although a plethora of resources exist, finding the most applicable guidance can prove challenging. After doing a quick Google search, individuals may stumble across some newfound lingo like: water activity (aw), pH, and shelf life, as well as a grandiose variety of microorganism names (some touted as good, some exclaimed as bad, and others proven as downright scary). What is all this nonsense?
Have no fear, for various land-grant universities and businesses offer Food Programs to assist budding food entrepreneurs in getting their products on the grocery store shelves. Food Programs offer a multitude of services including food testing, nutritional labeling, and scheduled process letters. The individuals in charge of these Programs are often referred to as Process Authorities.
A Process Authority is an individual who has “expert scientific knowledge of thermal processing requirements for low-acid foods and/or processing requirements for acidified foods acquired through appropriate education, training and experience” (1). These specialized individuals determine processing parameters to ensure that the foods to be produced are safe (biologically, chemically, and physically) for consumption. So much authority! However, not many Process Authorities exist; some states only have one Process Authority while others don’t have any at all (2). The group of Process Authorities that do exist tend to take on the responsibility of serving multiple states. As such, Process Authorities must be given a lot of credit. Everyday, they carry the burden of making decisions that affect the wellbeing of others, both consumers and entrepreneurs alike. Process Authorities are often faced with difficult decision-making conundrums while conducting risk assessments to ascertain the safety of a food product. What does that entail, exactly?
Well, imagine YOU are a Process Authority. Now let’s consider these following scenarios:
Scenario 1: An individual wants to make a product that has never been created before. You could spend a copious amount of time delving into the scientific literature and seeking out other experts for assistance or you could reject their proposition. Keep in mind, you have about 100 other entrepreneurs that are also patiently awaiting your assistance. How do you proceed?
Scenario 2: Someone wants to start making organic baby food. You must determine if these individuals demonstrate the knowledge necessary to responsibly produce such a product for such a high-risk population. Not properly processing the food if it is intended to be shelf stable can result in infantile botulism and death! What if you approve them based off of the information they provided you, but then they decide to “go rogue” and produce the food however they see fit? Are you responsible for their negligence? But what happens if you deny their request from the start? Are you standing in the way of the “next big thing?”
It’s not so easy being a Process Authority, is it?
Food Programs face several challenges due to the comprehensive, all-encompassing niche market that they service. Issues with infrastructure can arise when a Process Authority or supporting employees retire or leave as there are very few individuals with such expertise. Thus, searching for a replacement can result in under-staffing and backlogging of a Food Program.
“But it’s a secret recipe! Won’t the program try to poach my idea?” The answer is, “no.” Confidentiality is of utmost importance, and must be maintained by law (1) . Because these programs are often imbedded with governmentally-associated bodies (i.e. Land-grant universities, through Extension programs, etc.), they exist solely to serve the public and receive very few benefits in return for their service. Every year, food entrepreneur programs around the country are helping upwards of small businesses to achieve their dreams!
Due to the high turnover rate, it can be difficult to maintain an updated list of current Food Programs and their principal heads. Yet, this list is of importance as it is essential for Process Authorities to collaborate to easily share scientific information and personal expertise with one another. Ultimately, Process Authorities are unicorns; not only do they have to be experts in the science of processing foods, they must also effectively communicate this science to the entrepreneurs themselves. Arguably, one of the most important parts of a Process Authority’s job is to educate the public on how to process wholesome and safe-to-eat foods. By connecting entrepreneurs with Extension publications and other relevant resources, Process Authorities further equip food processors with the tools and support necessary to produce their products with confidence.
So now that you’re locked loaded and ready to start your awesome new food idea and career, who ya gonna call? Your local Process Authority!