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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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Company Profile: MycoKind

MycoKind LLC was incorporated in 2018 when two PhDs talked about changing the world through fungi. A food scientist, a plant pathologist, and a food systems analyst ate dinner over Korean BBQ and the kindness that grows by culturing community kickstarted the fungal venture.

They wanted to take a look into changing the food industry by tapping into novel methods of growing products. “We are not trying to create new supply chains or build completely new infrastructures. Rather, we intend to tap into science and tradition to slightly adapt something that exists (ie fermentation).”

The most significant milestone up to date was having a five course four beverage mushroom themed popup dinner with more than 50 guests and some VIPs. Some of their favorite accomplishments are different conversations and interviews among their colleagues including Daryl of BeerTalkNow, Ilona of Ktchnrebel, Lichen of Asians in America, Adam of My Food Job Rocks, Chef Gigi of Sunday Suppers, Lana of Food Tank, Alex of Cultured Meats and The Future of Food, and Leneia of Artisan Restaurant Collection. Each conversation was fun and engaging.

Some challenges that they face are that they “have a lot of capabilities that are within [their] company and that means a lot of IP. It is just difficult to figure out where to start and which idea is fitting for product market fit.”

Their future plans are to be able to collaborate with more brands, organizations, institutions, and communities to increase the accessibility of fungal knowledge. “Through culturing community, we hope that our kindness grows too.”

Something they wish more people knew about their industry: “Fungi have a lot of applications that we are starting explore in more novel methods. The possibilities have opened up more discussions on fermentation, mycoremediation, health and wellness. “

Check them out on social media @mycokindllc on Facebook or Instagram, @mycokind on Twitter and LinkedIn, or their website: https://mycokind.com/ as they plan to figure out how to host forays, popup meals, and classes.

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Contents of a Good HACCP Plan & Manual

Written by Safe Food Alliance Team
Originally Published in FOOD SAFETY, HACCP, STARTER SERIES

In today’s food manufacturing environment, basic food safety principles are no longer enough to meet customer and regulatory requirements. The rules have changed, in large part due to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). In addition to new laws from legislators, the standards and demands of customers now far surpass regulatory requirements. What this means is there is now an expectation to not only master Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) but to go one step further and become Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certified. To gain certification with any of these programs, you need to start in the same place. You start with a HACCP plan.

12 Steps to a Good HACCP Plan

When building out your HACCP plan, follow this specific methodology involving 12 steps. If you are having trouble, just reach out to your friendly neighborhood Safe Food Alliance team.

One thing to remember as you build out your plan – a HACCP Plan is a living document, and as such, should be revisited often as your processes change, your company grows, and you discover better ways to produce your product. Now that we have that covered, let’s begin.

1. Assemble the HACCP Team

Your plan will typically include a table where all the names of the HACCP Team members are written and signed, and the team leader is clearly designated. The team functions best when it’s highly cross-functional and includes members of various departments such as sanitation, maintenance, production, and quality. It’s essential to have these varied perspectives and background knowledge. 

In this section, you should include a brief description of each member’s current position, background, and experience. You’ll also need to have a copy of a HACCP formal training certificate for the HACCP coordinator, from an accredited two-day HACCP course.  There should be some sort of documented HACCP training for the rest of the team as well, whether conducted internally or by someone like us. The more knowledgeable the team, the better the plan will be.

2. Describe the Product

This section should include a full description of each product or family of products within the scope of the plan. Product descriptions should consist of details that impact the food safety of the product, including (as applicable):

  • the recipe or formulation
  • the packing materials and any other information such as the modified atmosphere
  • the conditions in which the product is to be stored (e.g., temperature, light, humidity)
  • the shelf life
  • distribution conditions
  • any potential for abuse in the distribution chain or by consumers, which may put the product at risk.

The better you define the product before starting the hazard analysis, the more thorough the review will be.

3. Identify the Intended Use

The intended use is based on the usual consumption of the commodity by the final consumer or user. Again, defining intended use helps ensure a more thorough hazard analysis later. This section includes both your company’s intended purpose based on product design, as well as potential other applications. The more you know your consumers, the better you can take care of them. A classic example, in this case, is cookie dough: it’s a product you typically cook before consumption, but in some cases, it’s eaten raw. For this reason, several companies have had recalls on their cookie dough due to consumer illness.

4. Construct the Flow Diagram

The process flow diagram must be clear and detailed to describe all process steps. Use this diagram to help ensure the hazard analysis is thorough and as a visual reference as your team considers potential hazards to the consumer. The flow diagram must include every process step that occurs on-site, from the very beginning (e.g., receiving and preparing ingredients, storing packing materials, etc.) to the very end (shipping, warehousing, etc.) The clearer the diagram is to the viewer, the easier to understand the process. Others may also use the table during site visits (e.g., customers, auditors, consultants, regulatory officials). Hence, it’s wise to design it in a way that it’s relatively clear to others who don’t know the process as well as you do.

5. On-Site Verification of the Flow Diagram

On-site verification of the diagram helps ensure its accuracy.  Again, the purpose of this is primarily to ensure a thorough hazard analysis. The site will need to provide proof that the HACCP Team has verified the flow diagram.  Some companies like to keep the first version of the diagram with hand-written notes on it, indicating changes made and initialed and dated by the participants. Ultimately, however, proof of the verification is best done with a final, updated copy that is signed; or meeting minutes indicating approval of the final version and signatures of participants.

6. Conduct a Hazard Analysis

The hazard analysis is part of the plan that typically takes the most time to review and update. Here the team collects and examines all relevant data to the product’s safety, including process performance, product defects, customer complaints, results of internal and third-party audits, and various other relevant information.  The team must take the proper time to conduct a thorough analysis.

A Hazard analysis can vary in format, but needs to include these common elements:

  • List of all process steps and ingredients
  • Identification of potential hazards
  • Assessment of each hazard, with consideration of both severity and likelihood
  • Identification of ‘significant’ hazards
  • Justification of the assessment (detailed explanation as to the team’s reasoning)
  • Identification of appropriate controls for each hazard
  • Now, under FSMA, the identification of any Preventive Controls as well. For more information on this subject, take a look at this article. For training, refer to the PCQI course.

7. Determine Critical Control Points (CCP’s)

This one is a simple concept. Based on the hazard analysis described above, you can quickly identify all significant hazards and CCPs. Critical Control Points are those essential steps designed to control a specific hazard so that the product will be safe to consume. The team should use a decision tree like this one when determining CCPs.

8. Establish Critical Limits for Each CCP

A critical limit is a critical control point’s “go/no go” or “acceptable/unacceptable” criteria.  For some processes, such as metal detection, it is as simple as testing with certified metal test pieces to ensure proper function. For other types of CCPs, it can be much more complex and include parameters such as temperature, humidity, product viscosity, or chemical concentration. All these variables and values have to be clearly defined, including both lower and upper limits, as applicable.

Documents related to the process and relevant sources used to establish the critical limits must be available to support the limits. These documents could be regulatory standards, guidelines, internal or third-party validation, experimental results, literature surveys, and expert guidance. The stricter the validated limits, the higher the potential efficacy.

9. Establish a Monitoring System

This step is where we define the monitoring method for each CCP.  Monitoring is how we ensure the process has met the critical limit, so the product is safe.  The monitoring procedure should contain the following:

  • What will you monitor?
  • How often shall it be monitored?
  • Who is responsible for performing the task?
  • What instruments will you use?
  • How will you monitor? (method)

The clearer the instructions, the fewer chances of failure.

10. Establish Corrective Actions

Each CCP is required to have predetermined and documented corrective actions for deviations that may occur. The corrective actions plan should comprise at least the following elements: the responsibility for each action, disposition of the non-complying product, the correction of the cause of failure, and recording the event. Keep records of activities readily available. If you need help with conducting root cause analysis for your corrective actions, check out our quick root cause analysis course.

11. Establish Verification Procedures

Much of the discussion in our HACCP courses end up centering around how to conduct verification in the context of HACCP properly.  Verification procedures should be activities designed to confirm that the plan is: 1) being followed; 2) effective for its intended use, and 3) adequately maintained. We are looking for defined procedures here, indicating how we conduct routine verification activities like the sign-off of the CCP monitoring records, as well as how you complete the less-frequent validation. The more exhaustive the verification is, the more confident we can be of the plan.  For more on verification, take a look at our article “The 6th Principle of HACCP: Verification”.

12. Establish Documentation and Record-keeping

This final step includes establishing both record-keeping processes and the company’s documentation system (establishing defined procedures, the company’s methods of document control, etc.). Consider:

  • How will you document your system?
  • What should you include?
  • Who is responsible for doing it?
  • How long are you keeping records? Where are you saving them?
  • Who needs to have access to what documents and how are documents controlled?

A better-documented plan helps ensure better execution.

As you may realize by now, developing and documenting an effective HACCP plan is not an easy task. Training on the methodology, experience, and technical elements are essential aspects of effective HACCP Plan implementation. If you need guidance with training or consultation, Safe Food Alliance is here to help.