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Food Entrepreneurs

One woman’s Indian curry is a hit with family and friends. After opening a home-based business to sell her popular dish, she not only finds customers who will buy her food but also wins a national award for Best Product of the Year at the Fancy Foods Show in New York.

A man discovers a wonderful recipe for a traditional Italian sauce and decides to market it in the United States. Today, he has a contract with the Fresh Market grocery chain near Roanoke, and has sold more than 3,000 cases of his sauce.

After moving to the United States, an Ethiopian woman considers how she can bring her country’s native cuisine to Virginia. The woman, a Virginia Tech alumna, has sold numerous products and recently opened a restaurant featuring traditional Ethiopian dishes in Blacksburg.

    Food Entrepreneurs

These real-life success stories might never have happened without the Food Entrepreneur Program. One important effort in this overarching initiative is the Virginia Food Processor Technical Assistance Program, which gives Virginia’s food processors needed guidance on the formulation and regulation of their products to ensure that they deliver safe and wholesome foods that comply with state and federal laws.

“If somebody thinks he has the best new salsa to hit the market, I help him get his product in the hands of consumers,” says Joell Eifert, director of the Virginia Food Processor Technical Assistance Program.

Eifert is one of several members of Extension’s community viability team. “This is a part of Virginia Cooperative Extension’s ongoing effort to enhance community viability by fostering the growth of small and home-based businesses and empowering citizens to contribute to their local economies,” says Brian Calhoun, state program leader for Extension’s community viability efforts.

Although Eifert frequently helps her clients sort through federal and state regulations and understand the “lawyerspeak” of the food processing industry, cutting through red tape is not the program’s main purpose. In addition to analyzing food products and the processes used to make them, Eifert offers technical recommendations to help improve food products. She trains her clients about food-safety issues, product formulation, shelf life, packaging, labeling, record keeping, and regulatory compliance. From the day a client puts a label on a freshly canned jar to its expiration date, Eifert will know how a food item will perform and whether it meets expectations.

“Initially, we have to worry about food safety,” Eifert says. “This is our first and most important priority. We want to make sure a food product is safe and wholesome when it enters the market.”
Eifert recalls a client who brought in a chocolate sauce with a major defect. After only three weeks, the sauce would begin to mold in its container. Most sauces last for months before reaching their expiration date. With its brief shelf life, the chocolate sauce was doomed. Eifert helped the client reformulate the product so that it lasts six months instead of three weeks on shelves.

Clients might learn about the resources available from the program in many ways. A small-business owner might ask a family and consumer sciences agent about the nutritional value or marketability of a food product he hopes to sell at a downtown store, or a food grower might turn to an agriculture and natural resources agent with a question about selling her produce in packages at a local farmers’ market. Community viability specialists might need Eifert’s expertise to help educate individuals about starting a home-based food business or a community cannery. The Food Processor Technical Assistance Program is available to help Extension faculty and their clients in each of these scenarios.

The program has grown from humble origins, with only nine food samples analyzed during its first year, to the successful program it is today. Last year, 214 food products from 49 food businesses in Virginia were analyzed. Seventeen of the food samples had a significant food safety issue that may have resulted in unsafe foods in the marketplace had they never been tested. Eifert also identified 38 products with a significant quality issue that may have negatively impacted a food processor’s bottom line. She says these figures are not unusual and demonstrate not only the need for the program but also the challenges that nearly everyone in the food industry faces.

“Entering the food business is tough,” Eifert says. “Even when you have some of the better products, it is not easy and requires a great deal of fortitude. There are times when you are going to be knocked out and you have to get back up again.

Eifert works under the supervision of Robert Williams, an assistant professor of food science and technology, and also has the support of a dozen faculty members in Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology to assist her with any difficult questions that clients might raise. Because Virginia Tech has the only accredited food science program in the commonwealth, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Virginia Department of Health, the two state agencies that deal with food safety issues, often refer food processors to Eifert and Williams.

“Dr. Williams and I are recognized as Process Authorities for acidified foods by the Food and Drug Administration,” Eifert explains. “What this means is that we have enough expertise to determine whether a food product should be in the market, judging by the recipe and the process we have observed.”

Federal law requires some food processors to seek the counsel of a Process Authority before filing mandatory documentation with the FDA. Without this counsel, processors of acidified foods cannot legally sell their products. “For example, the signature of a Process Authority is needed for most food that comes in a can,” Eifert explains.
In this role, the Food Processor Technical Assistance Program connects the public sector with the Virginia government. Since its inception in 1998, the program has helped identify dozens of potentially hazardous food products that would have been a risk to consumers without appropriate intervention.

“We have the best of both worlds,” Williams says. “We work to protect public health, and we get to help create some very good products.”