It can be a long and winding road as a fermented food moves from producer to consumer. In the middle of that trip are food distributors who have to ensure that these living foods have a pleasant journey. When I taught a food microbiology course at Boston University’s Gastronomy Program last spring, I met Susan O’Regan-Reidy, a microbe-loving sales representative from Seacrest Foods. Susan has the unique perspective of seeing products like cheeses, salamis and other fermented foods move from producers all the way to the hands of consumers. I asked Susan to share her perspective in this Profile for MicrobialFoods.org.
What is your role at Seacrest?
I am a sales representative who takes care of the specialty, meat, deli, dairy, bakery and seafood departments in the North Atlantic region of Whole Foods Market. Our primary focus at Seacrest is the selling of artisan cheeses and specialty foods including high end chocolate, charcuterie, nuts, caviar, crackers, spices, and marinades among other things. If we sold some rustic bread all of my favorite foods would be covered.
Describe what you do on a typical day at work for you and how microbes play a role.
My week is split between the office and visiting stores. My office days consist of overseeing orders, processing credits, attending sales meetings, and talking with vendors and customers. My road days consist of introducing new products in the form of samples, having lively conversations about what’s going on behind the retail counters, and introducing cheesemakers/vendor representatives to the teams. Microbes play a major role in the majority of the products that we handle. Since these fermented products are essentially alive and continually changing there is a huge focus on tight inventory turns. Managing the expectations of the customer is also a major focus.
What are some of the most common microbe-related questions that you get as a distributor of fermented and aged artisan foods?
The most common microbial questions relate to quality, texture and taste of cheeses. Customers like the idea of artisanal products yet demand uniformity and consistency. As a distributor we strive to receive products in their optimal condition and then maintain the best environment for that product until it reaches the retailer.
What are some of the greatest microbe-related challenges that you face as the part of the supply chain between the producers and the shops/consumers?
It always amazes me how the cheese industry has managed to somewhat control such a volatile product. On the distribution side we do run into issues ranging from cheeses being held for inspection by the FDA to batches of cheese arriving in poor condition. For example, one day we discovered a stronger than normal aroma of cheese in the warehouse. A whole pallet of Taleggio had basically cooked itself in the middle. We were not certain of the exact cause but guessed that the pallet had been tightly wrapped for too long during transport. The cheese essentially needed an outlet to breathe. All of the contained microbial activity led to an ooze fest. One coworker’s response was, “quick, grab some bread”.
What is your favorite food microbe or microbial food?
Cheese!!!! My love affair started at an early age although I wasn’t exposed to the vast array of cheese available until I started working for Whole Foods Market. I spent a number of my Whole Foods years working in the Specialty department at the Kensington store in London, England. My experience in London really opened my eyes to the world of cheese at the store level and beyond. The selection of cheese and charcuterie at the Kensington location was incredible. I had the chance to take a course in the production of soft ripened cheeses at a dairy college and the unforgettable experience of learning how to make cheddar in the actual town of Cheddar –thank you John Spencer! I can pretty much eat any type of cheese at any time of the day.
Looking back, I guess my first ah-ha lesson in cheese microbes was in understanding how Swiss cheeses get their holes. One of my coworkers explained how Propionibacterium shermanii consumes lactic acid then essentially “burps” out carbon dioxide creating the holes. I later learned that the same microbes create a certain taste profile by producing acetate and propionic acid. The simple visual of a burping microbe, responsible for the cartoonish version of what we all can recognize as cheese, was for me the gateway to wanting to learn more about the microbial world of cheese.
Posted by Benjamin Wolfe