CLEMSON — Your mama’s jam. Grandma’s chow-chow. Daddy’s secret barbecue sauce. Can’t you just savor the flavor? Don’t you reckon others would pay for the privilege?
Before you can turn your recipe into a business, you’d better be ironclad certain it’s safe — and legal.
“There are a lot of people who cook really well, who have a product and want to sell it. Their friends keep telling them they should do more than just bring it to the church and the family reunion,” said Kimberly Baker, a Clemson University Cooperative Extension food safety associate.
“They may have a great idea, but they need some help navigating the regulations that apply to food safety,” she said. “That’s what we do.”
Baker runs Clemson’s Food2Market program, a quiltwork of classes, training material, personal advice and scientific tests to help newcomers learn the ropes and safely move their food products to consumers.
Food2Market is designed to reach what Baker calls “food entrepreneurs”: newcomers who bring energy, creativity and vitality to the marketplace. Baker just wants to be certain they don’t also bring botulism.
“Foods that do not meet certain specifications can encourage the growth of bacteria, which can cause people to get sick,” Baker said. “Federal and state laws specify conditions that products have to meet for safety purposes. It’s important to have your food product tested to be sure it meets those criteria.”
Food2Market helps steer food entrepreneurs through the sometimes confusing macramé of regulations and the agencies responsible for them. It covers everything from manufacturing process controls to requirements for package labels.
Not all food entrepreneurs are exactly newbies. Sometimes newcomers have a lifetime of experience.
“We get a lot of retired people or people who have already had a career in one field and are looking to make a change,” Baker said. “Even for the experienced, there’s often a lot to learn.”
Among the experienced is Steve Perone, whose father, Vince, began a famous Upstate restaurant business by selling sandwiches for a quarter at Furman University, where he played and coached football in the 1950s.
“I’ve considered packaging some of my dad’s sauces,” Perone said at a Food2Market meeting in Columbia. “Producing and marketing packaged foods is a great deal different from the restaurant business. I came here to learn as much as I could, and it’s a great experience.”
South Carolina food products
“There’s no better example of capitalism than food entrepreneurs. If you have a great idea you have to develop it, produce it, market it and put it in the hands of the people who want it,” South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers told attendees at the Columbia workshop. “That’s why I’m excited to see people like this getting the support they need from the experts. The cooperation among agencies to help these people is excellent.”
Cooperation is key in the food business, which must meet requirements from USDA, FDA, state and even local governments, said Julie Northcutt, a Clemson professor of food, nutrition and packaging sciences.
“Food has to be handled properly from harvest to consumption to ensure its safety,” she said, rattling off names of potential food pathogens responsible for an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States each year: salmonella, norovirus, campylobacter, toxoplasma, listeria, Clostridium perfringens and Escherichia coli O157:H7 – known by the more familiar alias, E. coli.
The Food and Drug Administration and the state agriculture department require testing for certain products that have a potential risk for growing harmful bacteria. The Food2Market program offers testing for some products to meet those requirements, including tests for pH, water activity and nutritional analysis.
Food products that will be stored without refrigeration require pH testing. If the product has high sugar content, a water activity test also may be required. The results of these tests will determine whether the product requires additional registration.
“Products that are classified as acidified and low-acid require processors to register their facilities and processes with the Food and Drug Administration,” Baker said. “This is a requirement of the FDA and must be done before registering the product with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.”
Clemson also offers a Better Process Control School, which provides certification for food processors dealing with acidification, thermal processing and container closure.
The certification and product testing results are included in documentation to show state and federal authorities that requirements are met.
“It’s not just a good cook who makes a food entrepreneur,” Baker said. “You’re a manufacturer. You’re the marketing person. You’re the salesman. You’re the one to find the equipment, buy the ingredients, follow the regulations, buy the insurance.
“Some will pay off, while the majority never make it to the top. The important thing is to know why you’re in the business to start with,” she said. “For a lot of them, they’re happy selling at the farmers market in the peak of the season. That’s enough. Others need a little supplemental income, so they set out to generate a few thousand dollars a year. It all comes down to what the entrepreneur considers success.”