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How to Work with a Food Scientist

How to Work with a Food Scientist

Written by Brian Chau, Principal Advisor at Chau Time

Hiring a food scientist or food product developer can be a daunting challenge. These are the people who transform your food idea into reality. Read more to better understand: how a food scientist within product development operates; how to use a project proposal as a tool to set expectations for your overall vision; and explore the options on how to best collaborate with a food scientist. 

Understand the Framework:

There are a lot of job titles for food scientists including: food technologist, product developer, food specialist, culinologist, culinary developer, formulator, or R&D scientist/chef. For simplicity, food scientist will imply any titles aforementioned. 

When looking for a food scientist, specify that you are looking for someone who can do product development from concept to commercialization. A food scientist with product development experience has the knowledge to help take your idea, create a prototype, and provide a formula that will be commercially viable. Some specialize in product development and not scale-up; that may be fine depending on your needs, but we will focus on a food scientist who can do both. A good food scientist should also be a good product manager, balancing different parameters that affect development from costs to scalability. Their end goal is to deliver a product formulation that is likely to be reproduced at scale while also being food safe. 

What a food scientist will help you do:

  • Make suggestions regarding how to improve the product and provide critical feedback in a very technical and structured approach
  • Tell you that a request is outside the bounds of regulations, food safety, or even scientific principles
  • Assist in the development process
  • Work with an existing manufacturing line

What a food scientist will NOT help you do:

  • Tell you how to reverse engineer intellectual property that a competitor took years to develop
  • Tell you the best flavor (as that is often very subjective and the food scientist may not fit your target audience)
  • Make the final decisions for you and your brand
  • Engineer new equipment for scaling

The first step in working with a food scientist is to co-create a project proposal to set clear expectations and understand how to go through the product development process.

The Project Proposal; Setting Expectations: 

Any good food scientist should best work within the framework you provide them. You provide the guardrails and expectations for your brand. What guides the conversation is understanding that you provide a range of values or priorities that will allow the food scientist to help you better develop the product or inform you about the issues you are to expect on the feasibility of your request. Here is a list of parameters to discuss:

Commercialization: 

Arguably one of the most crucial parameters, and is what differentiates a food scientist from a chef. How you scale up products through equipment is based on your approach and your strategy. Whether you are going to work out of a commercial kitchen or start with a contract manufacturer, a food scientist can guide you through the process. Commercialization goals should often be the first point of discussion as a food scientist will better understand how to scale the product and provide prototypes that have mimicked the commercial processes.

Product Attributes: 

Let the food scientist understand your branding by describing what kind of certifications you expect to have on your package: organic, non-GMO, Kosher, Halal, keto-friendly, high in fiber, no trans-fat, etc. What kind of ingredients do you accept or do not accept and why do you think it is important to the brand?

Packaging: 

Let the food scientist know what is your serving size, number of servings per package, and what type of package you plan to use. If you do not know these parameters, look at analogs in the market and make your best assumption.

Nutritional: 

Although this parameter overlaps with branding, the nutrition panel requires special attention. Offer a range of values for your macronutrients (ex: 8-10 grams of protein per serving size.) Based on your packaging, you can determine if you want vertical, horizontal, or linear labels. Specific nutrition claims and allergen statements will be duly noted.

Cost: 

Your cost of goods sold is important. You want to allow for a range of values here too; be specific on what you are including in your cost of goods sold by mentioning if you are referring to the case, the individual unit, or by the pallet. Look at whether you are referencing minimum order quantity or tiered pricing.

Sensory: 

Determine how many stock keeping units, what flavors, an ideal texture, and ideal look and/or color.

Shelf Life: 

Your suggestions will be an ideal range. The food scientist can tell you what to realistically expect or at least suggest a better range. Be specific on what you are looking for as there are different types of shelf-life studies between sensory, microbiological, and physical and/or chemical. 

Timeline: 

Depending on the product and what stage your business is in; you can have a quick turnaround time or anywhere between 6 and 9 months. Food scientists understand their own timelines and can either fulfill your request or tell you how reasonable or not the timeline is. 

Food scientists are not magicians. They cannot read your mind nor have a product appear out of nowhere. Product development takes time, iteration, and flexibility in making adjustments. The range of values will allow for flexibility in the development process. You don’t want to make the development so difficult that the process stalls out and your launch plans get impacted. Setting expectations allows for dialogue on what is feasible within a timely and structured manner; set priorities between parameters to make decision making easier.

When developing your project proposal, you want to understand what your needs and wants are in the negotiation table as well as the needs and wants of the prospective food scientist. You want to have an idea of how to best communicate with the food scientist and assess if there is synergy with the food scientist. Some food scientists work on a per project proposal which works out best for their project management. Others work on an hourly basis which can be valuable for quick turnaround times. Some food scientists might be open to the idea of equity and turning into a long-time partner of your organization. At the end of the day, a food scientist is a person with a particular skill set of translating science and technology of food and beverage into a commercially viable, food safe, and delicious product. Each food scientist operates under rigorous training in the sciences, but they also have their own personalities that may or may not work well with your brand. Honestly, the same principle applies to anyone you want to hire. Always be open to exploring all options before making a final decision. 

The process of working with a food scientist takes time. In building out these relationships by setting expectations and building dialogue, the path to developing your product will be less stressful. The project proposal is a tool to lay the foundation of how to work with the prospective food scientist. Remember that food scientists are people too and they cannot read your mind; they don’t understand your vision as much as you do and they have their own personalities. By understanding how they operate, you can better manage how to leverage their expertise to grow your business. You can save time in knowing you have someone who can translate the technical information for you to make a final decision. Most importantly, you managed to de-risk a critical component of your business.

Brian Chau: Food Scientist, Fungal Fanatic, and Food Systems Analyst at Chau Time. Brian is the Principal Advisor at Chau Time, his own consultation firm. He is the Co-founder of MycoKind, a food biotech company. He also sits as an advisor to food tech companies. He is working on his first book, How to Work with a Food Scientist, to help founders understand a food scientist’s capabilities and improve the understanding of how to navigate the technical world of food and beverage consumer packaged goods.

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Mitigating Risk through Food Packaging

By George G. Misko and Natalie E. Rainer, Keller and Heckman LLC

Historically, the main function of food packaging has been to safeguard food by providing a physical barrier to help maintain food and beverages in a sanitary condition. Over the years, advances in food packaging technology have resulted in packaging that provides additional protection and other benefits. These more recent innovations include susceptors to aid in the browning of foods cooked in microwave ovens, oxygen scavengers/emitters, ethylene scavengers, time-temperature sensors, and biosensors that can help to prolong shelf life and/or monitor the condition of food.  In fact, it is clear that over the past 100 years or more, packaging technology and food processing equipment has been a major contributor to the manner in which food products of all sorts safely reach the dinner tables of Americans and people throughout the world, while lessening the environmental footprint of this industry.  Indeed, even in these days of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that “[T]here is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.” (1)

(1) See the FDA information sheet, titled, “Shopping for Food During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Information for
Consumers.”

The U.S. and other jurisdictions around the world have implemented food packaging regulations to assure that packaging materials are safe for use and that no off-odors or tastes are imparted from the packaging to food or beverages. And as technological advances in food packaging provide improvements in food quality and safety, some of the regulations governing the composition and use of food packaging regulations have been changed to accommodate these advances. This article will focus on U.S. food laws governing food packaging materials and revisions to those laws necessitated by technological advances. First, though, we provide a brief description of the manner in which food packaging is regulated in the U.S. and the information that is required to assure the safety of food contact materials.

U.S. Food Packaging Laws

The history of formal regulation of food packaging in the U.S. began with the passage of the Food Additives Amendment of 1958.  Prior to 1958, customers sometimes insisted on being assured of a package’s safety and utility by asking to see some documentation from FDA or the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicating that it had reviewed and found that the intended use of the materials would not adulterate food or, put another way, were safe for their intended use.  

The Food Additives Amendment of 1958 added, in part, a new section to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) that defined the term “food additive” as “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food” unless that substance is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) or subject to one of a number of exceptions or exclusions listed in the Act.”(2) As a result, all food contact substances that may reasonably be expected to migrate to food are regulated as food additives. Conversely, food packaging substances that are not reasonably expected to become components of food are not by definition “food additives” and may be used without prior authorization or clearance by FDA.

 (2) See Section 201(s) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Food contact substances (FCSs) that are considered food additives must be authorized for use in food packaging by FDA through a food additive regulation or a Food Contact Notification (FCN). The food additive petition process entails clearing food additives (including food packaging materials that meet the definition of a food additive) through a notice-and-comment rulemaking process. Information required to submit a food additive petition for packaging materials includes: the identity and composition of the substance of interest; a description of the manufacturing process; information on its intended use (such as food types, temperature conditions at the time of packaging and during use, and the expected duration of contact with food); and chemistry and toxicology data supporting the safety of that food additive for its intended use. The petition should also include test methods used to verify specifications for the raw materials and the finished products. Finally, the petitioner must include an environmental assessment to established whether the manufacture or use of the substance as intended will likely result in any undue impact that will require further study. Once a food additive is cleared through this process, FDA publishes a regulation, which can be relied upon by the petitioner as well as other manufacturers and users of the additive provided any limitations and specifications listed in the regulation are met. 

The FCN process largely supplanted the petitioning process with passage of the FDA Modernization Act of 1997. Data requirements for an FCN are about the same as those for a food additive petition with respect to the need to estimate dietary intake for an additive and establish safety through the provision of toxicity data adequate to support the estimated exposure. In addition, data identifying the FCS, its intended use manufacturing process and the like are very much required as in the petition process. The primary difference between the FCN and FAP process is that FCNs are proprietary, i.e., they can only be relied upon by the manufacturer of the FCS identified in the FCN and by its customers. Third parties who manufacture the same substance are required to submit their own FCN to be enabled to reach the same market. The other major difference is that  where it could take literally years for FDA to grant a petition, an FCN automatically becomes effective 120 days after it has been accepted for filing by the Agency, unless FDA objects in writing prior to the effective date.

Assuring Safety

FDA applies a tiered approach to the toxicity data needed to support safety of food-contact materials. That is, the higher the level of estimated dietary intake to a substance, the greater the toxicity data needed to support safety.  

Another important consideration with respect to safety is the statutory and regulatory requirement that food contact materials be manufactured in such a way as not to result in the adulteration of food, i.e., be of a purity suitable for the intended use, as  required by FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) regulation for food packaging materials. (3)

(3)  See Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 174.5. 

The suitable purity requirement dictates that FCSs may not impart anything to food that may cause it to be harmful or deleterious to health or result in an off-taste or -odor in food. To meet this requirement, the manufacturer must consider the safety of foreseeable impurities in the FCS, including residual monomers, starting reactants, catalysts, and reaction byproducts and degradation products. 

New Technologies

As new types of food packaging are developed based on technological advances, the safety of the materials used in these packages need to be evaluated. In some cases, revisions in food packaging regulations were made to assure the safety of the food in contact with new technology. We will examine some of these technologies and what new requirements, if any, were implemented to assure their safety.

Microwave Susceptors. The introduction of susceptors in microwave packaging resulted in higher cooking temperatures, which could be used to crisp and brown food by cooking it in a microwave oven. FDA food packaging regulations use the term “Conditions of Use” to describe the typical temperature conditions under which food products may be used in contact with packaging materials or articles intended to process or hold food. In April 2006, FDA expanded its list of Conditions of Use to include two additional categories. One of the new categories, Condition of Use J (“Cooking at temperatures exceeding 250°F”), is applicable to microwave heat susceptor materials. The following year, in December 2007, FDA updated its chemistry guidance for preparing FCN submissions. The new chemistry guidance includes specific protocols on testing for dual ovenable, microwaveable, and microwave heat susceptor materials.

Antimicrobial Agents. The safety of antimicrobials used in food packaging is regulated by FDA similar to other food additives; however, they may also require registration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Additionally, antimicrobials used in or on permanent or semi-permanent food contact surfaces, which are not intended to have an ongoing effect on the food contact surface, are regulated by FDA as food additives. If, however, the intended effect is ongoing, that is, intended to preserve the article from microbes or the protection of the user, EPA exercises jurisdiction over the use and food safety issue. 

In all cases, except those involving processed food, the antimicrobial used will be considered a pesticide for purposes of FIFRA and will require registration with EPA regardless of FDA’s jurisdiction over the matter. In addition, antimicrobials added to packaging materials with the expressed intent of migrating into the food to increase its shelf life by retarding spoilage may be considered food preservatives by FDA or USDA, if meat or poultry, and require labeling of the food product.   

Biobased and Biodegradable Plastics. As interest in sustainability has increased, the use of biobased and biodegradable plastics in food packaging is expanding. “Biobased” means related to or based out of natural, renewable, or living sources, while “biodegradable” means capable of being broken down naturally to basic elemental components (water, biomass, and gas) with the aid of microorganisms. “Biobased plastics” are plastics manufactured from renewable biomass, such as vegetable oil, cornstarch, pea starch, and microbiota. Biobased plastics can also be biodegradable.

While biobased plastics are required to comply with the same regulations with respect to food safety as fossil-based plastics, there are several regulatory issues that need to be considered for new biobased material or new applications for existing materials. These include determining the appropriate food simulants to be used to estimate the potential for migration and demonstrating that the substance is stable for its intended use. In addition, it may be necessary to consider the suitable purity of the finished product with respect to the potential presence of organic matter, such as cellular debris, and naturally occurring contaminants (e.g., mycotoxins and algal biotoxins). 

Recycled Materials. The growing interest in sustainability is also behind recent initiatives by a number of food companies to increase the use of recyclable packaging and the use of post-consumer recycled plastic content in food packaging. Recycled plastic in food packaging must meet the same safety standards as virgin plastic. 

Companies may independently evaluate the status and safety of a polymer produced through a recycling process. However, many companies will submit their determinations to FDA for review through a voluntary program. If FDA agrees with the company’s determination that a given recycling process is adequate to produce suitably pure recycled food-contact material, it will issue a no objection letter (NOL). To assist recyclers, FDA has issued guidance on recycled plastics for use in food packaging, which provides information on how to establish the safety of recycled polymers for food packaging. With respect to secondary (physical reprocessing) and tertiary recycling (regeneration of purified starting materials), FDA stresses the importance of demonstrating that possible contaminants from prior use of the plastic are sufficiently removed by the recycling process. To accomplish this, FDA provides specific recommendation on contaminant testing.

Conclusion

We have provided several examples of new innovations incorporated into food packaging. The use of antimicrobial is just one example of active and intelligent packaging, or packaging that interacts with food or its surroundings to prolong shelf life or monitor the condition of the food, slow the rate of oxidation, and prevent microbial attack. As advances in food packaging technology continue, further regulatory considerations may need to be addressed.

About the Authors:

George Misko is one of Keller and Heckman’s Food and Drug practice group leaders. Mr. Misko’s practice focuses on food and drug matters and environmental concerns, including pesticide regulation, right-to-know laws, and toxic substance control regulations. He has extensive experience counseling clients on regulatory requirements relating to chemical substances, plastics and food products in the U.S. and other jurisdictions, including Canada, the European Union, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific region. He also represents trade associations, including acting as legal counsel to the Global Silicones Council.

Natalie Rainer practices in the area of food and drug law. She advises clients on regulatory requirements for foods, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and food and drug packaging in jurisdictions around the world, including North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Ms. Rainer’s practice includes evaluating the regulatory status of food-contact materials, food additives, and color additives; advising companies on advertising and labeling requirements (including claim substantiation, nutrition labeling, menu labeling and environmental/green claims); and counseling clients on the Food Safety Modernization Act and its regulations.