Wednesday, June 19, 2024

AgCenter launches online course for retailers interested in specialized food processes

by BIZ Magazine

Kyle Peveto | LSU AgCenter

BATON ROUGE, La. — Recent trends in the food business are driving restaurants, chefs and artisans to market their fare in new ways and blend manufacturing and retail.

Online marketplaces sell Louisiana boudin to customers all over the globe. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and grocers are selling more packaged sushi and other foods so customers can dine at home.

“Businesses are crossing lines, regulatory lines,” said Evelyn Watts, a food safety specialist with the LSU AgCenter and seafood extension specialist for Louisiana Sea Grant.

While blurring boundaries in business can lead to greater growth, it also means unraveling additional laws and regulations. To help food-focused businesses crossing between manufacturing and marketing better understand these rules, the LSU AgCenter has created an online course, the Louisiana Retailers eLearning Curriculum, in collaboration with the Louisiana Department of Health.

“Retail establishments like stores or restaurants should actually be able to market their products more widely using these methods,” Watts said. “They will be able to understand better the regulations and comply with state regulations.”

The online course focuses on the three most in-demand, specialized processing methods identified by Louisiana Department of Health sanitarians, the public health specialists who help ensure food production in the state is safe. These three processing methods include reduced oxygen packaging — vacuum packaging and other methods of packaging food that reduce oxygen to a level that helps extend shelf life to prevent the growth of certain organisms — and smoked meats and sushi preparation.

Watts and her team received funding to develop the online course from a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) grant in 2021.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has identified specific food industry processes that have been linked to foodborne illness, and these processes have been placed under strict controls. State departments of health regularly inspect these “specialized processes.”

“The main thing with sushi is the acidification of the rice and the sourcing of the fish because there are some hazards associated with fish, like parasites,” Watts said.

Safety regulations for smoking meat focus on “heat penetration for killing pathogens and also anything that has to do with the barbecue or the smoking vessel,” she said.

A 2020 survey of Louisiana Department of Health sanitarians conducted by the AgCenter found that food businesses need a better understanding of all the regulations that affect their businesses, Watts said.

“They also expressed that there was not sufficient training in food safety regulations associated to specialized processing methods,” she said.

In the past, classes on these processes have been offered occasionally by the AgCenter, but Watts said that an online course could reach more people across the state on a consistent basis.

“We can develop something online, so people don’t have to come to Baton Rouge for the class,” she said. “Even if they are in north Louisiana, they can just go online and complete the class.”

The online course consists of 10 modules. All participants will complete the first five, which cover food safety basics. The remaining lessons are more specific, with one module on sushi, another on smoked meat and another on reduced oxygen packaging. Another module focuses on hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP), a food safety management system that monitors the entire food system. The final module contains a mandatory evaluation.

“While completing training is not required by state authorities, it will help food retail establishments keep their products safe and pass inspection,” Watts said.

Each module contains a pretest and lessons presented through text and in videos that range from five minutes to 40 minutes in length. Each module also includes a quiz that assesses comprehension, and students must correctly answer 80% of the questions to earn credit. After registration, students have two months to complete the curriculum.

Until Aug. 31, the Specialized Processing Methods eLearning course is free as part of the original grant from USDA NIFA. After Sept. 1, the course costs $175.

To learn more about the online course or to register, visit the Louisiana Retailers eLearning Curriculum webpage on the LSU AgCenter website. For more information, email the course organizers at [email protected].

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