What you're about to read may shock you. These are stories of food formulations gone horribly awry. Ghosts in the food processing machine that make subtle changes to ingredients or systems while no one is paying attention. Goblins that thrive on miscommunication to unleash a shifting kaleidoscope of unstable colors and a cacophony of incompatible flavors.

Some may call it gratuitous, but we're taking the moral high ground by claiming that there's a useful purpose in publishing these stories. We're giving our readers a precious gift: the chance to learn from other peoples' mistakes.

Overall, the stories that follow illustrate a number of principles of good food forensics, namely:

  • The best specification and information systems alert all interested parties when a change is made. These include changes in ingredient formula, manufacturing process, facility, or supplier. They also include changes in the product formula, manufacturing process, facility, or quality assurance system.
  • Several external forces can alter a system, including Mother Nature.
  • Some problems are defined in a way that makes them impossible to solve. Changing the scope of the problem or broadening the acceptable range of changes often expedites solutions.

All the sad tales that follow are based on recollections and experiences of the food scientists at Merlin Development Inc., a contract development company with 125 years of collective food industry experience. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Tale 1: Harvey's Fatal Substitution

Harvey, a young food scientist, shared an office with Max, a seasoned veteran. Max was the quiet type. Business was never discussed between the two.

One day Max was assigned to cost reduce a very expensive flavor that was used in a number of high-volume products. He succeeded in developing a significantly cost-reduced flavor and proved that its taste was not noticeably different in any of the end products. Since the cost-reduced flavor was used in the same products at the same level as the original flavor, the same ingredient code number was assigned to it.

At the same time, Harvey was assigned to design a new flavor product in an existing line. Being eager to follow all the product development trends, Harvey developed the new product from existing ingredients within the system, including the original flavor that Max was simultaneously cost-reducing and only one new ingredient addition. An eternal optimist, Harvey watched confidently as his new product gained marketing approval and sailed through plant and R&D testing.

Only one crucial hurdle left: consumer testing. Unfortunately for Harvey, the time span from in-house approval to consumer testing proved just long enough for the gremlins to get a foothold.

They cackled with glee as the consumers turned up their noses in disgust at Harvey's new product. They danced merrily as the panel gave Harvey's first attempt the lowest hedonic ever scored on a dessert product.

How could this be?

Battered but unbowed, Harvey embarked on a fact-finding mission. After several wasted hours trying to vindicate his tarnished reputation, he finally learned the truth: The shelf stability work for the ingredient system Harvey used had all been done using the old flavor in the formula. The new flavor, while completely satisfactory in all other products, reacted with Harvey's one new ingredient, producing serious off-flavors.

Insidiously, the off-flavors developed slowly enough so that they were not apparent when the team approved the product for consumer test, but they were very apparent to the consumers in the test!

In the end, the new product was scrapped due to the off flavor problem and a lack of time to correct the problem while meeting marketing deadlines.

"Guess I should have warned ya about that, kiddo," said Max. "Tough break, eh?"

Moral: Communicate changes to all affected, including your whole department as an "FYI".

Tale 2: Night of the Shifting Specs

Victoria had used corn syrup successfully in dozens of new product formulations, so when she got the word to formulate new Choco-Sugar Bomb cookies, she reached for her supply of corn syrup #12. An ace at formulation, she developed an experimental design for the cookie using ingredients from her shelf supply.

Victoria's optimum formula, meeting many requirements, was determined from the design and confirmed in the pilot plant. To Victoria's dismay, however, a scale-up test run to confirm the formula and produce sales samples yielded cookies that did not match the quality of the pilot plant samples.

Victoria and her colleagues suspected scale-up from pilot plant to plant was the cause of the problem. However, many products had been successfully scaled up from the same pilot system, so she investigated further.

Victoria discovered that all lots of ingredients used were different between the pilot and plant runs since they were done at different facilities—nothing surprising there. She confirmed that the high-fructose corn syrup used at the plant met the same specs as the high-fructose corn syrup used in the pilot plant. It did, but it was purchased from a different supplier.

Many companies, Victoria's included, establish an ingredient code number system based on internally generated specifications. She discovered that the two corn syrup suppliers used different production processes, but her company's in-house specification system viewed them as identical.

In "water-limited" systems, like cookies, changes in supplier or manufacturing facilities can cause important changes in texture or flavor. In the cookie product, the very minor differences between the two corn syrup sources were confirmed to be the cause of the difference in finished cookie quality.

Moral: Track the source of your ingredients down to the manufacturing line, if possible. Little differences can matter.

Tale 3: Night of the Shifting Specs, Part II

Hal needed titanium dioxide for his food formulation. His ingredient specifications listed two supplier code numbers (call them x and y) as acceptable products. His company had been using titanium dioxide x. But when production of his product was moved from one facility to another, the company purchased the y version, since that type was in use in other products made at the new facility.

The production line operator noted that the ingredient bag looked different than before, but he ignored the difference, since the new ingredient was permitted in the product specification. Unfortunately, however, the finished product was much darker in color.

Hal, accustomed to taking ingredient specs on faith, eventually discovered that the supplier specifications for the two titanium dioxide products were not the same: one had a significantly larger particle size than the other, which caused the color shift. Oops!

Moral: Don't assume internal ingredient codes and specifications are 100% accurate.

Tale 4: Attack of the Psychedelic Ooze

Sylvia, a QA manager for a major food company, got a call one day from a plant operator.

"You better come and look at this," he growled.

When she got to the plant she discovered that her normally appetizing yellow sauce was coming off the line a hideous green color. She launched an investigation, but later in the day, the sauce was yellow again! Then back to green... Then yellow again!

Phone calls to R&D led Sylvia to ask engineering if any changes had been made in the processing system.

"Oh, yeah, we shortened the pumping distance because we've had so many problems with excessive shear over the years," said Ed, the engineer. "Didn't they tell ya?"

Sylvia's tests confirmed that for some of the sauces made at the plant, the long pumping distances were actually a beneficial part of the process by assisting in the formation of a stable emulsion, which was critical to consistent sauce color. Engineers adjusted the sauce-making process to accommodate the newly piped system.

Moral: Communicate any production changes to all affected, including R&D and other departments who might have input on or be affected by the change.

Tale 5: Death by Foul Smell

Irv was asked to track down the source of a "cigar-like" off flavor in a baked product. He reviewed the odors on all the incoming ingredients and packaging: no luck. He described the off flavor to the operators at the plant, but none of them felt they could identify the off flavor in the product, nor anywhere in the plant.

The off flavor was so persistent, Irv asked a flavor scientist, Jean, to tour the plant and help identify the flavor. As they finished the plant tour, one area near packaging smelled strongly of the off flavor.

The plant superintendent couldn't smell the odor, however, nor could any of the operators. Jean, intent on proving she was not imagining things, started asking if any of the operators smoked. When it turned out that all of the operators smoked, a non-smoking employee, Lynn, was asked to tour the plant with the scientist. Lynn also identified an unusual odor in the packaging area, but didn't describe it as cigar-like. Jean went home, leaving Lynn on site to "sniff out" the cause.

About a week later, during one of her "sniff tours" of the plant, Lynn noticed the odor was stronger. With the aid of the operators, they finally determined that the chain oil for the oven was the source of the problem. The proximity of the rolls of packaging film to the chain oiler allowed the off flavors to collect in the film and transfer to the product. Changing the type of chain oil resolved this problem.

Moral: Consult a variety of people about a problem. Sometimes an unlikely person can contribute to the solution.

Tale 6: A Sometimes Vengeful Goddess

Mother Nature was not amused. Some risky investments had failed to pay out and her friends completely forgot her birthday, so she decided to wreak havoc on the planet.

She alternated prolonged heat spells with wicked cold snaps. She poured down buckets of rain and dried them up into bowls of dust.

Animals and crops across the land were stressed, and food scientists would feel their pain too.

One in particular, Erin, couldn't figure out why she was having so much difficulty with her bakery line. She phoned her miller, who explained that the prior spring had been very difficult and that he was having trouble with flour consistency.

Erin had heard that many of these problems could be traced back to flour, and specifically to decisions the miller has to make to meet customer specifications as he moves through his grain inventories. Even when flour specifications are very detailed, the specification may not cover all of the parameters that make the food production facility run smoothly.

She explained her problems to the miller. He suggested a few modifications in her specifications and purchasing approaches that might help avoid the same issues in the future.

Erin's friend Carl, a meat and poultry processor, echoed Erin's observations about the harsh spring. He explained that summer and early fall can be problematic for other food ingredients due to the stress heat can impose on livestock. Heat-stressed chickens produce eggs with lower solids content and meat-producing animals exhibit a variety of effects of heat stresses prior to slaughter, affecting meat pH, water-holding properties and color.

Moral: Share as much information with your suppliers as you can. Ask them for their input on specs, and ask if they make quality choices beyond or in addition to the written specification.

Tale 7: It Seeped in From All Sides

Oscar developed a new product formula over the winter months. It sailed through production until spring, when the product started to develop a very unusual off flavor.

He diligently traced down all the incoming ingredient streams and determined that there were no changes to them. After hours of fruitless research, he finally looked at what seemed a constant: the water supply.

He learned that spring and summer variations in the water feeding into his city had forced water officials to adjust chlorine levels daily to meet finished water quality specifications. Further testing proved the water was the source of the off-flavor in Oscar's product.

Municipal water temperatures in cooling water systems can also affect process temperature control capability, resulting in changes in texture and stickiness in a variety of products. If finished product temperature increases, minor differences in product quality can compound to result in quality problems.

Moral: Leave no stone unturned. Something you might consider a constant, such as water, could be the source of your problem.

Epilogue: The Keys to Troubleshooting

Careful analysis of the preceding stories reveals that in some instances down time could have been avoided or reduced if the players had:

  • Communicated formula, process and plant changes to appropriate people.
  • Looked for changes in the food ingredient, formula and manufacturing system.
  • Sketched out basic food chemistry, physics and engineering elements relevant to the problem in an attempt to find solutions.

Sometimes how you define a problem can hinder its solution. For example, Merlin Development Inc. was recently asked to solve an important, recurring production problem. The customer asked us to solve the problem using current ingredients and processing, and, if possible, the same ingredient declaration. Two months, seven experimental designs, and over 100 formulas later, we finally concluded that there was no solution to the problem within the constraints given.

Reluctantly, the customer agreed that the constraints could be eased. Free to approach the problem without constraints, we first sought basic system understanding and then used experimental designs including new key ingredients. The problem was solved—and at lower cost—despite the use of more expensive ingredients!

--Leslie Skarra is the owner of Merlin Development Inc., Plymouth, Minn. The contract food product development company specializes in new products in most application categories and solves tough technical problems while creating great-tasting products. Phone: 612/475-0224, Fax: 612/475-1626. E-mail: lskarra@merlindev.com