Testing fruit and vegetable-based food products for safety, Al Wagner, Ph.D., said the lab tests anything from pickled products and salsas to hot sauces and marinaras.
Wagner may be the only man in Texas who can just as easily discuss the intricacies of food safety for acidified foods as the finer points of timed and rough-stock events in rodeo. After retiring 11 years ago from being a full-time professor in the Texas A&M’s Department of Horticultural Sciences and a food technologist with AgriLife Extension, he returned part-time to lead the Food Technology and Processing Lab so he could help food entrepreneurs succeed and create a safer place for Texans of all ages.
He now runs both the Food Technology and Processing Lab and serves as Texas A&M’s Aggie Rodeo coach.
Food Technology and Processing Lab
“A lot of companies can afford to go to an outside source for food product testing, but that’s not true of some of these mom-and-pop operations. They rely on us to get their products through the safety screening process,” he said.
As a processing authority, Wagner is an expert on the thermal processing requirements for low-acid foods packaged in hermetically sealed containers and has expert knowledge in the acidification and processing of acidified foods.
Essentially, if a Texan is considering bringing their family’s peach jam recipe or a celebrated salsa to market, the Food Technology and Processing Lab works to provide a needed first step to ensure an accurate shelf life and confidence their product is safe for consumption.
“The Food Processing website for entrepreneurs has all the forms needed and gives a lot of guidance as to how to submit samples for food safety testing,” he said. “If someone is trying to get a salsa to market, the website is a good place to start.”
The potential dangers
“The pH, or acidity of a product is very, very important,” Wagner said. “If the pH is where it needs to be then, even if everything else is off, it’s safe to eat. If it is too high, then you have a potential food safety problem.
“We’re also looking at headspace vacuum, which basically tells me how hot the product was when put into the container,” he said. “And then with some products, like syrups, instead of pH control, we look at the water activity control.”
He explained that bacteria need moisture to live. But “if we can tie up the water using sugars, salts and polyhydric alcohols, then bacteria cannot survive,” and the product is preserved.
Working with commercial labs
Once a client submits the forms, a sample, a list of ingredients and the nominal $75 testing fee, Wagner can get to work. He checks to see if samples meet the processing safety criteria set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Clients must also submit two samples to a separate commercial lab where the products are incubated at different temperatures for 30 days to check bacteriology, yeast and mold. A list of labs is available on the website. Those results are then sent by the lab back to Wagner, who then compiles a food product evaluation form, which includes an estimated shelf-life.
“That form let’s people know what they need to do to produce their product safely,” he said, adding that the form needs to be kept on file at the place of business.
Once a client knows their product is safe with a stable shelf-life, they can then proceed to sell it to consumers with confidence.
Future of food lab
Wagner, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Coach of the Year in 2016, doesn’t see himself retiring again just yet. He’s just as passionate about the small Texas businesses and families who rely on the food lab’s services as he is fiercely dedicated to his rodeo athletes’ success.
The lab is essentially a one-man show, aside from a lab assistant. The rodeo coach role is a volunteer position. Until he knows both positions are in someone else’s capable hands, he’ll continue to serve Texas businesses and Aggie athletes.