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Fermentation adds value to farm products

By Staff | Feb 7, 2014

“What I’ve learned from a lot of people who have started fermentation businesses ... is that often the regulators are dangerous.” —Sandor Katz Fermentation foods expert




AMES -Fermentation is among the oldest methods of food preservation and is a traditional means for farmers to add value to their products.

However, producers may need to educate regulators about product safety, fermentation master Sandor Katz told those attending the annual Practical Farmers of Iowa conference, held at Iowa State University on Jan. 24 and 25.

“Products of fermentation are the classic ways that farmers add value to what they produce,” Katz told a standing-room-only crowd attending his three-hour workshop. “Fermentation is practiced in every part of the world.”

Katz, a Brown University graduate, self-taught fermentation expert and activist, is the author of “Wild Fermentation” in 2003 and “The Art of Fermentation,” the latter being a 2012 James Beard Foundation Book Award winner.

The most ancient form of fermentation, he said, is the production of alcohol. But fermentation also includes diverse products as yogurt and sauerkraut, Katz said.

He cited Iowa’s growing wine industry and mentioned event co-sponsors Eric and Sarah Underberg’s company, Agri-Cultured, whose products, in addition to sauerkraut, include pickles, mixed vegetable kimchi and kombucha tea.

“The shelves are full of fermented products,” he said. “All of the products of fermentation have always represented added value for farmers.”

Producers who transform goat or cow milk into yogurt or cheese are turning that product into something that is both more stable and more valuable, he said.

“It’s the same if you are turning cabbage and other fruit and vegetables into fermented vegetables; grapes into wine; barley into beer,” Katz said. “Economically for farmers, ferments are critically important.”

Regulations, safety

But, regulators may need some help in understanding the safety of fermented foods, Katz said.

“Right now,” he said, “we are living in a regulatory environment where there can be a heavy burden, especially on small-scale producers, because a lot of the regulation is written because there are mass producers.

“A lot of time requirements that may be perfectly reasonable for large-scale producers are being imposed on small-scale producers, and sometimes those requirements can be onerous.”

Although regulations may differ based on scale of production, he said “in all of the United States, it is certainly possible to produce products of fermentation.”

While some regulations differ by state, many of the rules are federally imposed, he said.

“What I’ve learned from a lot of people who have started fermentation businesses, either on-farm or off-farm, is that often the regulators are dangerous,” Katz said.

“The central dogma of food safety right now is that it is dangerous to eat any food that has sat between 40 and 140 degrees for more than four hours,” he said. “So, if you’re dealing with an inspector who has had this drummed into him, you have to do a little bit of training of them: ‘Well, look all of these extraordinary food that people have been eating for thousands of years and that our supermarket shelves are full of, that our specialty stores are full of, they’ve have all sat between 40 and 140 degrees.'”

Katz said producers may need to do some research and provide documents to help educate food safety inspectors.

“I’ve done a fair amount of steering people toward documentation they can share with their inspectors when they are tyring to argue that these foods really are safe and acceptable,” Katz said.

Sometimes, support comes from an unexpected source. Some time ago, a USDA microbiologist looked into the safety of fermented foods and concluded that “there was no case history of people getting sick from fermented food,” Katz said.

The same microbiologist who came up with the conclusion that “nobody’s ever experienced food poisoning from fermented vegetables has actually been very helpful to a number of fledgling businesses trying to make the case of safety to their food inspectors,” Katz said.

However, the burden of proof really ends up being on the people who are trying to get approvals to produce their fermented products.

“Sometimes,” Katz said, “they just have to become educators and researchers.”

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