Friday, March 2, 2012

Can I build a business around Mum's secret recipe?

I am often asked this question.

On the face of it, this is a simple question.  Mum has for years made a special dish or sauce and the whole family enjoys it.  Perhaps it is a traditional dish made back in "the old country" and an enterprising emigrant wants to make it commercially in the adopted country.  All that is necessary is to scale up production, right?

In some cases, this might be so.  However, there may be hidden pitfalls.

Perhaps the most important difference between Mum's cooking and a commercial operation is the timing - Mum cooked the dish or sauce and served it straight from the kitchen, whereas commercial manufacture involves packaging, storage, transport, retail display and purchase.  The shelf life must also leave time for the consumer to store it at home before consumption.

How about putting the sauce into a glass jar or a plastic pouch?  This introduces a new variable not present in the original.  This is exactly the scenario presented to me recently and I want answers to some additional questions before I'll agree that the product is safe.

For example: what is the pH of the product - acid or low acid?  This is not just about flavour.  If Mum poured a low acid sauce over your food and you ate it straight away, there was no problem.  But if we now wish to sell it in an hermetically sealed container, it may support the growth of Clostridium botulinumEven if the raw materials are heated during preparation, spores will have survived and can germinate and grow, producing botulin toxin during storage.  There may be no apparent change in the product, but it could be lethal.  In the case of a low acid product, a full 12D process must be applied and this process must be filed with the regulatory authority, must be followed for every batch and under the control of a registered person and full records kept.  Special equipment, capable of heating the product to well over 100C is needed to deliver a 12D process.

What about stability?  Will the sauce separate during storage and transport?  It may need a stabiliser to be added to prevent separation and thus ensure that it looks good to the consumer.  It's not a safety issue, but dissatisfied customers are unlikely to be repeat purchasers.

What shelf life should we put on the label?  Properly conducted storage trials are essential. For that matter, what are the requirements for labelling?  You can't just put a picture of the product onto the label and call it "Mum's special pasta sauce"; in most jurisdictions, there are very specific requirements, including name and address of the manufacturer and a list of ingredients, possibly with warnings about potential allergens like peanuts.  These requirements extend to specifying the size of type required for the nutritional information label.

Not least is the requirement for the product to be manufactured in a suitable premises.  These premises must be inspected and it is unlikely that the home kitchen can be approved for even minor commercial production.

In New Zealand, food manufacturers must have a suitable food safety programme in place.  New legislation will require this programme to be based on an assessment of risk posed by the product and process, and the programme must be documented and detailed records kept, so that premises and process can be audited.

There are many wonderful products on the market today that had their origins in Mum's kitchen in some part of the world.  To avoid tears, the budding entrepreneur should seek the advice of a professional food technologist before putting the product on the market.

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