For many a hungry shopper, the prepared foods section at Wegmans is a saving grace.
Already-cooked dishes offer fresh choices for shoppers in a rush to get home or just eager to take a break. But creating vegetable-based products like soups, sauces and pastes presented a challenge: how to keep prepared foods available to shoppers while ensuring a safe product.
In stepped the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC).
Food scientists at Geneva-based Cornell AgriTech, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), provided food safety and development expertise to ensure that the tons of food prepared each day remained safe and met the highest standard for quality.
“Vegetable-based prepared foods present a food safety risk if not handled correctly,” said Bruno Xavier, Ph.D. ’08, a food microbiologist and extension associate at the CFVC. “We worked with Wegmans to ensure that their food met the high-quality threshold they demand in their products without compromising safety.”
Collaborations with CFVC have supported Wegmans’ growth and the consistency of its product offerings. Wegmans’ deli operations, for example, rely on sandwich toppings prepared in bulk and shipped to stores across the chain. Bags full of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, onions and other additions are sent to stores to make thousands of sandwiches each day. CFVC established the food safety guidelines the company needed to handle and package those fresh foods at scale.
“We couldn’t have made that available to our shoppers without our collaboration with the Cornell Food Venture Center,” said Kathleen O’Donnell ’83, M.S. ’95, director of food science and regulatory affairs at Wegmans Food Markets.
O’Donnell started at Wegmans as a high school student, working in the bakery department at her local Buffalo store. Except for the years she studied at Cornell, she’s been at the company ever since. She can’t recall a time when Wegmans and Cornell were not collaborating on projects.
“The Cornell Food Venture Center is an invaluable resource for New York companies. We use it not just for what we are doing at Wegmans, but we’ve sent many of our suppliers to Cornell to develop and work on their products,” O’Donnell said. “It’s something that we have in New York state that is so important to the food industry and agriculture.”
Wegmans, a family-owned company started in Rochester – now with 46 stores in the state and 98 total across New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts – has long relied on the partnership with food science experts in CALS.
“The strong partnership between Cornell and Wegmans that has been built over many years creates a respectful and synergetic environment for strategic collaborations,” said Olga Padilla-Zakour, Ph.D. ’91, CFVC director and professor and chair of the Department of Food Science. “Discussions start at the first stages of conceptualization and continue to the final food product formulation and preparation, to proactively address any challenges that need viable solutions.”
Now in its 30th year, CFVC has supported Wegmans and its products throughout most of its existence. Cornell food science experts at CFVC have collaborated on projects aimed at ensuring safety, stability and shelf-life extension of a wide variety of products. For each food product, CFVC issues “scheduled processes” – the documentation required by state and federal agencies to meet safety regulations that are followed by the company to ensure the food is safe.
That seal of quality and safety for products being considered for retail allows companies like Wegmans to focus on innovation, according to Xavier. Following this model of partnership, CFVC has worked with more than 400 products manufactured by Wegmans, and many more that are manufactured by its suppliers.
O’Donnell said the partnership has involved near-continuous consulting on numerous products as the company fine-tunes processing for certain products and develops recipes for new foods.
Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.