Have you ever stood over a 1,600-gallon vat of hot pepper mash as it is mixed into a hot sauce? The challenge is how long you can stand there without tearing up, coughing or grasping a cloth to your mouth and nose. At my 2005 visit to Tabasco on McIlhenny Island, La., I both teared up and grabbed the cloth almost immediately. It was my first Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine cover profile visit — and one of my most memorable. In the following 15 years of my tenure as editor of QA, I went on to visit more than 65 food or beverage facilities, receiving exclusive on-the-floor tours to discuss and write about the company’s food safety and quality practices.
I have often been asked if I still trust the food industry having seen “behind the curtain” of so many facilities. Even understanding that the plants were likely to be spiffed up for the visit from “the media,” there wasn’t a single food that I hesitated to eat after seeing its production — well, not counting the roasted crickets from Big Cricket Farm, but I did it (and got the lapel pin to prove it!). Not only did those visits strengthen my trust that the majority of the industry does its best to keep food safe, the visits enable QA to be written from a plant-floor perspective versus from behind a desk.
They also tell the history of the industry. From the foundational elements of the Food Safety Modernization Act to come, as discussed with then-Food and Drug Administration Associate Commissioner of Foods Dr. David Acheson in 2007, to the just-as-foundational cannabis manufacturing of Dixie Elixirs and Edibles in 2014, when Colorado’s legalization was still an anomaly. We also covered the vast diversity of China’s food industry — from the state-of-the-art Shanghai spice facility of McCormick to the still hand-picked leaves of Xian’s Qinba tea fields.
Scrolling through the back issues of QA at www.qualityassurancemag.com/magazine, stopping now and again to take in a cover, skim an issue’s topics or read an article or two provides the visitor with a history of the last couple decades of the food industry — a time of extensive evolution and change. And, for me, it also carries incredible memories and reminders of the many relationships built — and retained — to this day.
There were famous celebrities: I dined with and got to know Bo Jackson and his steaks. I tasted Michael Symon’s barbecue right out of the wood-fired oven. I walked the meat-packing floor with Nolan Ryan. There were the less-than-famous, but no less extraordinary, food safety and quality managers and workers keeping our food safe. And there were the moments that I will never forget:
- It was a very questionable career move to ask to visit a cannabis-infused edibles company in 2014. But having gotten the go-ahead to cover the controversial industry, I found that walking into a dispensary to then visit the retail side held for me a peculiar feeling of a just-outside-the-law venture, like a speakeasy must have felt in the ‘20s.
- Along similar lines, while alcohol has been legal since the repeal of prohibition, the dry county in which Jack Daniels is located was just one part of the story for which our visit encompassed an unforgettable nine-hour tour of the historic property, distillery and caves.
- Spending the day with the family of a child with life-threatening food allergies — shopping for food, dining at a restaurant, seeing the avid separation of foods in their home pantry — brought the seriousness of food allergies home to me in a way nothing else could.
- But, as one might expect, of all my travels with QA, the visit to China was the most memorable in ways that are difficult to relay. Spending nearly a week in Shanghai and the surrounding area, then journeying to the hills of Xian was, in the only way I can describe, everything I expected and nothing that I expected.
While memorable, these barely begin to touch on 15 years of seeing the full supply chain of meat through visits from breeding to humane slaughter to processing, packaging and retail; speaking with an astronaut about food in space at NASA; even breaking my ankle in Olympic Park, but still conducting a somewhat-limping tour of Coca-Cola. At each visit the, overarching goal was to discover and relay best practices of a leading (or out-of-the-norm) food facility that would not only be interesting reading but provide the industry with practical insights that could be applied in their facilities, regardless of industry segment. But looking back, I see that what came from the visits — and the countless interviews conducted for QA features on pathogens, sanitation, pest control, FSMA, etc. — was so much more. They relay the history not only of QA magazine, but of the industry itself.