I grew up on the farm, worked on the farm, got a degree in agriculture, and married a farmer. I’ve always thought I had a good grasp on where my food came from, probably better than most. And I might, but I have learned some things about our food chain this past year; some that have surprised me and some that have down right shocked me. I wanted to start sharing some of these things but it has been very difficult to decide where to start. Bear with me as I try to stay focused and only elaborate on a few things at a time.
Why am I qualified to explain these things and why should you believe anything I say? Well, I’m not really qualified. I don’t have a degree in food science or food law or anything like that. I’ve never lobbied for anything or have done anything government involved. However, 2015 was a new start for me. The start of the Country Gardens and the start of a part time job close to home to keep the bills paid and health insurance for my family. I work part time for a food processing plant as the Quality Assurance Document Specialist. Quite the mouth full and really what the hell does that even mean? Usually when you think of Quality Assurance (QA) you might think of the lab technicians. They are ensuring that all of the outgoing product meets specifications and is safe for consumption. That means, for example, that the fat, salt, protein is correct (someone didn’t dump in the wrong ingredient) and that there isn’t any salmonella or other yucky things growing in there.
What I do comes before the product is made. I have to collect and verify multiple documents for each ingredient prior to being used. Probably something you never thought about. I never had. I verify that the ingredient meets specification for our product; that the allergen and nutritional information is correct, etc. On top of that, I also verify the vendor we are purchasing the product from. These documents include verification that they are in compliance with federal laws, their plant has the proper safety protocols in place, etc. All in all there are around 20 documents to collect and verify. In short, I make sure that the company and ingredients we are purchasing aren’t coming from your neighbors’ dirty garage. I also conduct in plant audits and participate when a customer, USDA, or ISDA does a third party audit of the plant. The FDA is constantly updating, changing, and creating new regulations. So I spend A LOT of time reading laws, dockets, and proposals. So this may not make me an expert but I have spent a fair amount of time making sure that I understand regulations so the company doesn’t get in trouble.
So here’s my disclaimer: I am NOT an expert on any of the topics to follow. I have included web addresses so you can do your own homework. I will try my best to be as unbiased as possible.
Some recent regulation changes in the food world include:
-Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs). These must be removed from all products; in 2013 the FDA decided that these were no longer Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for human consumption. In 2015, they made the final ruling that they must be removed. There are several years for companies to become compliant and believe me there will be plenty of exemptions.
-Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FSMA was signed by President Obama in 2011 and most of it is now finalized. This one is huge, all about food safety and prevention over reaction. There are several different parts of this law: rules for food for human consumption, animal consumption, produce safety, foreign supplier verification etc. It was finalized in September of 2015 and companies are still trying to read it.
*Krista and I are trying very hard to find trainings and information about the Produce Safety Rule in order to ensure we are completely compliant with the new federal and state regulations. These rules are extremely complex and trainings are just beginning to be offered for local farmers. We will be attending a few this spring. We take food safety VERY seriously.
-2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. USDA and US Dept. of Health and Human Services released the new dietary guidelines. These are revisited every 5 years and are revised based on current available nutrition science. This guideline is essentially telling the American people what and how we should be eating. Our kid’s school lunch programs, welfare programs, etc. are based directly off of these suggestions. Essentially, this revision says eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and cut out as much added sugar as possible. There is of course controversy about certain parts of it (red meat recommendations and big business influence).
What’s coming in 2016? I have a few things that I am closely watching and am very curious to see how they turn out. In the last few years the food industry has started to see some changes. Big business isn’t doing as well against the smaller mom and pop. Studies show that consumers have an increasing interest to know more about what they are eating and where it is coming from. They are interested in fresher more nutritious food. Isn’t that why you are a member of the Country Gardens CSA? Some big business is trying to lead the way to keep consumers. For example, you moms like me that buy Go-Gurt Simple may have noticed that it is no longer pink and purple and every other color but is now white. General Mills promised to remove artificial colors and flavors and reduce the sugar by 30% at the beginning of 2016. I wish I would have taken a picture of the labels when I realized I had purchased the new version of Go-Gurt. I can attest that the sugar went from 9g per go-gurt to 6g. They have also made similar promises in their cereal department. Keep in mind the things to watch for in 2016 are now just proposals. The FDA has most of the topics available on the website and encourage people to leave comments and suggestions.
-Nutritional Label. While in the proposal stage now, I anticipate that it will become finalized in 2016. Some of the changes to look for – required Vitamin D and Potassium levels, new easy-to-read format, added sugar vs natural sugar.
-Defining “natural”. Use of the word “natural” is currently defined, but very loosely and definitely not the way that you probably think. Simply put, natural means no artificial or synthetic ingredients. It DOES NOT take into account farming practices or processing methods. The FDA recently extended the comment period for this topic.
-GMO Labeling. This is a big fight and will continue into 2016. Several states have passed laws requiring GMO labels on products containing GMOs that will go into effect mid-2016. There is concern that if the federal government doesn’t create a nation-wide requirement the information for consumers and processors will become extremely convoluted and inconsistent as states pass their own laws. So, the pressure’s on to make some decisions. Big business has a huge hand in this, afraid that people will stop buying products once they are labeled as containing GMOs. In answer to consumers requests without having the government require labeling, several big businesses have started what is called the “Smart Initiative”. By the end of 2016 you will be able to download an app on your phone and scan an item in the store. Information will be brought up to help you make more informed decisions about what you are buying. I’m not going to comment on this, except to say that you should Google “Smart Initiative” to find some news articles highlighting different pros and cons.
So this is a little bit of information about several topics. And believe me, there are a lot more topics. If you want more referencing material on any of these or other topics please let me know. I will do my best to keep updates throughout the year as these proposals unfold.
I feel that the food industry is going to make giant strides in the next few years in transparency for American consumers as the demand for answers and information continues to grow. Come visit us, we’ll show you where your food is coming from. Thanks for supporting the Country Gardens as we try to grow and lead the way in the Magic Valley.