Keeping the Church's Food Safe


Amanda Taylor
Amanda Taylor prepares a sample of ground beef for microbial testing.
At age five, Amanda Taylor knew exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up: invent new flavors of ice cream. Today, Taylor is a senior majoring in Food Science and is well on her way to her dream. She oversees meat and dairy product testing— including ice cream— in the food microbiology section of BYU's Food Quality Assurance Lab. 

Taylor is just one of more than a dozen undergraduate students who work in the lab each semester. The experience has been providing unique benefits for both BYU and the welfare arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more than 30 years.  The primary purpose of the lab is to test food produced at Church canneries across the United States and Canada for safety and quality before it ships to bishops' storehouses.

 Dr. Ernest W. Hawkins manages the lab. "But it's the students who do most of the work," he said. And it is a lot of work. Among the products that go through the lab are applesauce, pasta, maple syrup, macaroni and cheese, peaches, beef stew, green beans, and ketchup. In the Food Microbiology Lab, students test hot dogs, hamburger patties, breakfast sausage, and dairy products. 

Over the past year, more than 9,000 samples entered the lab for testing.  Students checked seals on cans; measured levels of salt and sugar in products like peanut butter and salsa; and verified that meats were free from microbes such as E. coli and salmonella. 

On a recent Monday, students in the lab were testing applesauce for consistency, sugar content, pH, flavor, color, defects-such as stem pieces in the mix-and packaging safety. 

"It's great that BYU can hire students to do work that is typically done by professionals in the food industry," said Jordan Chapman, a junior from Wisconsin, who was showing another student how to test for the mixture's pH. Dain Clark, a senior from Orem, Utah, expressed what is perhaps the greatest virtue of the lab: It gives real-world experience to undergraduate students. "There aren't a lot of food laboratory opportunities out there for undergraduates," he said. The QA Lab is the exception.

Vickie Yonashiro, Lissy Murphy and Trevor GrunigJessica Colyar
(LEFT)Vickie Yonashiro holds a color sample to determine the grade of church peaches. Lissy Murphy and Trevor Grunig measure and record acidity.(RIGHT)24 hours after Amanda prepared the hamburger sample, Jessica Colyar views the culture for microbes. Contamination is extremely rare.
On this day, the applesauce tasted a little bland, so Dr. Hawkins made a note to call the cannery where it was produced. Whenever products score low in a testing area, they are retested and the canneries are notified. Canneries then take a look at the lot from which the failed samples came and decide how to fix the problem. Sometimes that means throwing out product; other times the problems are fixed quickly.

Andrea Baker and Shannon Hawkes
Andrea Baker and Shannon Hawkes test the seam of a can of pork and beans for defects and proper seal

Across the hall in the food microbiology section, products are tested for bacteria. Students place a sample, such as hamburger, in a plastic bag, add peptone water, and create a homogeneous base. They then place an extract in a petridish and analyze it for bacteria. Students also run similar tests on dairy products from the BYU Creamery. Taylor and her fellow students work hard to stay on top of USDA guidelines. In addition to performing laboratory tests, Taylor travels to the Church's meats and livestock facility in Spanish Fork to do carcass swabs and ensure that the facility meets safety standards on site.

 For LDS Welfare Services, the lab is indispensable. Most companies have in-house labs, which can sometimes feel pressured to approve inferior product. "The Church has an unbiased evaluator of their product," said Dr. Oscar Pike, who oversees financing of the QA Lab. "We maintain the highest standards of safety and quality." So, while the lab helps students pay their tuition, it also helps the Church save on a process that could be quite costly.
As Dr. Hawkins interacts with students in the lab, it's clear that they are receiving high-quality, hands-on mentoring in all operations. "Many students will go on to graduate programs or industry testing," he said. "Working in the lab allows them to know if this area of Food Science is for them."

Taylor, a senior from Arizona, will graduate this spring and go on to a career in product development. As she talks about her job, it's easy to see that she enjoys the experience. Her favorite part? Sampling left-over ice cream-pretty close to fulfilling her dream as a five-year-old.