Food Producer Technical Assistance Network
Founded in 1991, the Food Producer Technical Assistance Network at Virginia Tech was developed to support you, the food entrepreneur. We provide assistance with starting a food business, nutrition label content, food safety analysis, and pertinent food regulations. Our goal is to help Virginia’s food-processing industry produce high-quality, safe, and innovative food products.
Did you know?
As of January 1, 2023 there are now nine allergens which must be declared on labels for foods sold in the United States. The newest is sesame, which can be found in obvious places such as on top of hamburger buns, but also in less conspicuous places like cereals, crackers, tahini, hummus, salad dressings, and in many Greek and Asian food products. The remaining allergens required to be declared on labels in the U.S. are wheat, fish (with type specified), milk, peanuts, soy, tree nuts (with type specified), shellfish (with type specified), and eggs.
- Starting a food business
- Food labeling
- Science basics for food safety and quality
If you are looking for help planning and starting your food business, you are not alone. There are numerous resources available to help you with a wide variety of issues. Listed below are a few places you can start:
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) promotes the economic growth and development of Virginia agriculture, provides consumer protection and encourages environmental stewardship. Within VDACS, the Office of Food Safety and Inspection will assist in facility planning and layout, authorize a facility for food processing, and enforce food regulations. The Office of Marketing Services offers the Virginia’s Finest Trademark Program and the Virginia Grown Program (which assists with direct marketing programs for growers). They also supply marketing boards, trade event notifications, and organic certified programs. VDACS can be found at http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/
Within VDACS you can find the Agriculture and Forestry Development Services department. This department can serve as your first point of contact at the State level for starting or expanding a new food-, agricultural- or forestry-based business in Virginia. Their Project Managers will get you in touch with the assistance you need at every step of your business – from idea to grand opening. More information can be found online at http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/agribusiness
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) helps clients in the food industry define needed regulations for specific food products. VDH may also perform facility inspections, as well as host regular training workshops for food businesses. VDH may provide information to businesses about food and environmental services. Virginia Department of Health can be found online at http://www.vdh.state.va.us/.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a federal organization created to ensure the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics. The FDA is responsible for developing and enforcing food safety regulations and is continually providing information to the public regarding their work. The FDA is a source for information on regulations at government, state, and local levels as well as information regarding nutrition, recalls, guidances, product approvals, and more. FDA can be found online at http://www.fda.gov/.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is another federal agency designed to help with many facets of agriculture, especially with meat, eggs, and poultry products. USDA has a number of services and information on business development, marketing and trade, laws and regulations, dietary health, food assistance and safety. More information can be found online at http://www.usda.gov/.
Virginia Cooperative Extension holds resources at both the state and local levels, which consist of personnel to answer questions free of charge for those looking to start their own food business. There are specialists available in many different areas including, but not limited to, how to prepare a business plan, technical advice, and product safety testing. This information and more can be found online at http://www.ext.vt.edu/.
Virginia Department of Business Assistance provides a one-stop-service for technical assistance related to business formation, access to capital, and workforce development. The Department of Business Assistance is a source of information for getting a business started, financing, and workforce training workshops. This information can be found at http://www.dba.state.va.us/.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has information on starting and running a business. Here you can find information on permit and licensing and tax information. The website has information that can be helpful when questions arise. More information can be found online at http://www.business.virginia.gov/.
The Virginia Small Business Development Centers Network helps new food businesses with business counseling, training, and resources. In 2005, over 4600 business owners and managers received one-on-one counseling. While there are many offices throughout Virginia willing to help, they can also be found online at http://www.virginiasbdc.org/.
VT Knowledge Works is a resource available to emerging and evolving technology-based businesses throughout Virginia. It is part of Virginia Tech's statewide economic development support activities and it provides confidential strategic planning and business development assistance to individual entrepreneurs and businesses seeking to enhance their competitive position. More information can be found at: http://www.vtknowledgeworks.com/
The Virginia Tech Department of Food Science and Technology is a source for technical guidance on safety and regulatory issues governing food products. The department also conducts a number of trainings, including Better Process Controls School, ServSafe certification, and HACCP training. Visit the Department of Food Science and Technology’s website to learn more: www.fst.vt.edu
The Food Innovations Program, housed in the FST department, provides food product testing services and can act as an acidified food process authority. The Food Innovations Program provides assistance regarding the reformulation of food products, compliance with regulatory agencies, and development of nutrition labeling.
There are a number of agencies who could potentially inspect your food business. If you produce foods that contain more than 2% meat and sell in interstate commerce, you will be under the jurisdiction of the USDA. If you sell your product with more than 2% meat only in Virginia, you will be under the inspection of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) Office of Meat and Poultry, a state agency. The state abides by the USDA guidelines when inspecting. You can find all of the directives and guidelines on the USDA web site: www.fsis.usda.gov
If your food contains less than 2% meat and enters interstate commerce, you will be under the jurisdiction of the FDA. If your food product is made of ingredients purchased only in the state of Virginia and will be sold only in the state of Virginia, you will be inspected by the VDACS Food Safety department. If you are under the jurisdiction of federal regulations (FDA or USDA), you will be responsible for following the regulations established by the state agencies as well.
If you are selling your unpackaged product directly to the consumer at the place you are producing it (restaurants, cafeterias, etc.), you will be inspected by the Virginia Department of Health. If you are producing a product to be sold through wholesale distribution (grocery store, local bakery, etc.), then you will be inspected by VDACS. Regulation and definitions can get complex, so check with state inspection agents to be sure.
For state inspections of farmer’s markets, the inspection agency involved will depend on the circumstances of the farmer’s market. In general:
- Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS): Regulates vendors at government-run farmers markets who make hot or cold food-to-order and food sales’ booths located in government-run farmers’ markets and private markets. Ex.: State Markets, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands (markets), On-Farm Stores, Home Operations, PYO/U-pick Operations, CSAs, Mail Order and Internet Sales, and Farm-to-Institutions.
- Virginia Department of Health (VDH): Regulates vendors operating at a private individual’s or organization’s farmers market that make food to order.
Is My business exempt from state inspection?
Your home-based food business may not require a state inspection if the following criteria are met:
- You make and sell:
- Baked goods that do not require refrigeration for safety
- Candies that do not require refrigeration for safety
- Jams and/or jellies made with high acid ingredient
- You direct sell your items
- You include the following phrase on all of your un \inspected product labels:
- "NOT FOR RESALE - PROCESSED AND PREPARED WITHOUT STATE INSPECTION"
Operating your food processing business from your home is possible in the Commonwealth of Virginia for a number of food products. In most cases, a state inspection will need to be performed before you can prepare food for sale. However, you are exempt to state inspection if:
You are processing and preparing candies, jams, jellies not to be considered low-acid or acidified low-acid food products, and baked goods that do not require time or temperature control after preparation out of your private home. These foods must:
- Be sold to individuals for their own consumption and not for resale
- Be sold at the private home or at a farmer’s market
- Be labeled with the phrase “NOT FOR RESALE – PROCESSED AND PREPARED WITHOUT A STATE INSPECTION”
In order to prepare your kitchen for commercial food production, you will need to contact the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to discuss requirements you will need to meet. If your kitchen requires inspection by the State of Virginia, you will not be permitted to produce food for sell until an inspection has been completed and your process has been approved.
If using your own kitchen is not something you wish to do, or if the zoning laws in your area do not allow for it, there are a few other options.
- You may rent a facility to operate your food business. These facilities may be a commercial kitchen, a shared-use kitchen or a kitchen incubator. In these facilities, you provide your own ingredients and prepare your foods yourself. Your process must still be inspected. It is important to understand that it is not the kitchen that must pass inspection, but the whole process of making your foods. Therefore, just because a kitchen has been inspected and passed in the case of one person, another person will still need to get inspected by a state inspector while performing their food processing in order to legally sell their product.
- You can use a co-packer. With a co-packer, you provide the recipe for your product, and the co-packer makes and packages the food for you.
Each option has its advantages and disadvantages and should be thoroughly researched by the food entrepreneur before a decision is made. No matter what route you choose to take, operating from a certified kitchen takes you one step closer to owning and operating your own food business.
It is often desirable to know the shelf-life of food products in order to establish a “best before” or “use by” date. Depending on your food product, you may need to send samples to a lab to determine the product shelf-life. However, if you have established that your food product will spoil before it presents a food safety risk, you may be able to conduct a shelf-life study on your own.
Shelf-life determination of your product can be complicated. Shelf-life has many components, but can be broken down into three main categories:
- sensory characteristics
You should start by looking at similar retail products to get an idea of the shelf-life that other manufacturers use. This should give you a good baseline. Next, try to establish a general shelf-life by undertaking your own assessment. For this step, your food product should be stored in its final packaging and required storage temperature. Examine the product on a daily basis and follow three simple rules; if the product looks bad, smells bad or tastes bad then that is the end of your shelf-life.
Look for these characteristics during this exercise:
In this exercise, you will be looking for spoilage. Microbiological degradation can be easy to detect through off-odors or flavors from spoilage organisms. Make sure to also consider yeast and mold susceptibility. Both of these will be easy to see and/or smell. Mold will be obvious and will show evidence at or near the surface of the product. It may appear in a variety of colors - white, yellow, green, etc. Yeast can be evident visually, usually white and glossy and smells like fresh baked bread.
Often, chemical problems in foods occur due to fats and oils. Fat will go rancid and cause off -odors and -flavors. However, this usually takes a couple of weeks to months (longer during frozen state) to notice. Rancidity of fats is due to oxidation or exposure of the fats to oxygen. Oxidation is chemical reaction, as well as enzymatic browning which will cause products to turn brown/darken and become soft. Staling is also a chemical reaction.
Your knowledge of your food products’ desired taste, look, and smell make you the best judge of your products’ perceived sensory. Taste the older samples against some new samples. If the taste or odor has changed to a degree that you no longer feel comfortable selling it, then there is a good chance no one would want to buy it either.
Your preliminary shelf-life will be the time in which one of these attributes (microbiological, chemical or sensory) has fallen below a level of acceptability. You may decide that you do not like the flavor or odor of a product or the product becomes unacceptably dark before you ever notice mold. Or perhaps the product looks and smells fine but you notice mold growth. Regardless, when one of the above characteristics becomes substandard, do not exceed that time in shelf-life.
Shelf-life is affected by processing atmosphere, processing parameters, packaging, storage temperatures, etc. Shelf-life can change over a period of time because your processing area conditions may change. For instance, you may have greater mold spores in a hot kitchen during the summer. Therefore, your shelf-life may not be as long during the summer because certain items mold or stale faster. Or, if you change an ingredient manufacturer, that ingredient change may shorten or extend your shelf-life. Therefore, you should consistently monitor your product over time for any changes. Concise and complete production records are necessary.
The inclusion of contact information on your label may also help you finesse your shelf-life due to customer feedback. Consumers may be your best informant if something goes wrong with your product. The time you receive the comment may tell you if you have a problem with the product at a specific time in the shelf-life. This is also why a manufacture date on your product will help. When you receive comments from consumers, ask them the manufacture date. You will then know the age of the product at the time of the comment. You will also know the production date which may be a factor. Remember, one consumer complaint may not show a trend, but several will. Be aware when designing your label that customers are most likely to provide feedback when given a phone or email contact.
Your product may be labeled in four different ways to address its organic contents:
- 100% Organic
Your product must contain 100% organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt. Your label must show an ingredient statement when the product consists of more than one ingredient. Your label must show BELOW the name and address of the handler of the finished product, the statement: “Certified organic by ---“ or a similar phrase, followed by the name of the certifying agent. Your product name may be modified to include “100 percent organic”. The term organic may be used to identify the organic ingredients in your ingredient list.
Your product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not counting water or salt. Your product must not contain added sulfites. Your product may contain up to 5% non-organically produced agricultural ingredients which are not commercially available in non-organic form, or other substances allowed by 7 CFR 205.605. Your label must show an ingredient statement, and list the organic ingredients as “organic”. Your label must show below the name of the address of the handler of the finished product, the statement: “Certified organic by ---“ or similar phrase, followed by the name of the certifying agent. Your label may show the term “Organic” to modify the product name. Your label may also state “X% organic” or “X% organic ingredients”.
- “Made with Organic Ingredients”
Your product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not counting water or salt. Your product must not contain added sulfite (exception for wine that contains added sulfur dioxide in accordance to 21 CFR 205.605). Your product may contain up to 30% non-organically produced agricultural ingredients or other substances (including yeast) allowed by 21 CFR 205.605. Your label must show an ingredient statement which lists the organic ingredients as “organic”. Your label must show below the name and address of the handler of the finished product, the statement: “Certified organic by ---” or similar phrase, followed by the name of the certifying agent. Your label may show the term “Made with organic --- (specified ingredients or food groups)”. Your label may state “X% organic” or “X% organic ingredients.” Your label MUST NOT show the USDA Organic seal.
- Some organic ingredients
Your product may contain less than 70% organic ingredients, not counting water or salt. Your label must show an ingredient statement when the word organic is used, and the organic ingredients used must be labeled “organic” in the ingredient statement. Your label may show “X% organic ingredients” when organically produced ingredients are identified in the ingredient statement. Your label MUST NOT show any other reference to organic status, the USDA Organic seal, or any certifying agent seal.
No, you cannot. The USDA Organic seal may only be used in certified operations. If you choose to be exempt from certification, you may not use the seal, nor may you call your product “certified organic”.
Can I call my processed food “organic” if I use organic products from non-certified (exempt) grower?
No, you cannot. A processor cannot buy exempt organic ingredients, process them, and label the product organic. The organic ingredients used must be CERTIFIED organic for the processor to be able to claim the ingredient in their processed product is organic.
If I organically grow the ingredients myself on an exempt farm and use the ingredients to make a processed food, can I call it organic?
Yes, if you grow the ingredients yourself according to NOP guidelines and qualify for certification exemption, you may call your product “organic”.
To learn more about the National Organic Program, visit the USDA’s National Organic Program webpage at www.ams.usda.gov/nop. There you will find information on organic standards, compliance, enforcement, and more. You may also contact the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), who also has a website dedicated to organics. It may be found here: http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/marketing/organic.shtml.
- Upcoming Better Process Control Schools Offered around the United States- Published by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)