Uncle Charley's Sausage Co. relies on Penn State Extension for help with food safety, as well as research and development of new products. Image provided by Uncle Charley's
When Len Caric and Phil Conty took the helm of western Pennsylvania-based Uncle Charley's Sausage Co. in 2014, they had years of experience in manufacturing and business operations.
What was not in their bailiwick was the science and knowledge behind processing meat.
As small-business owners and operators, they could not afford to hire an in-house food scientist -- a common practice among large meat processing companies. To maintain the 30-year-old company's stellar reputation for quality and safe pork offerings, and to meet future goals of expanding its product line, they had to learn the ins and outs of meat processing, food safety and sanitation.
Fortunately, they soon learned that Penn State Extension was offering a three-day food safety course in Ithaca, New York. Taught by Jonathan Campbell, meat extension specialist and assistant professor of animal science, Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate, and Cathy Cutter, food safety extension specialist and professor of food science, the course -- Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points -- details how to prevent pathogens from entering food products.
That was the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the company and Penn State Extension, a partnership that Caric and Conty agree has been beneficial.
"We rely heavily on Penn State Extension for help with food safety, as well as research and development of new products," said Caric, president and chief operating officer. "We can always count on an immediate response from Jonathan and the Penn State meat science team to help us to be more competitive with the U.S.-based and international food companies."
Penn State's assistance has gone beyond the walls of a classroom -- Campbell has made visits to Uncle Charley's plant in Vandergrift to examine sanitation and safety practices and to guide them on potential equipment needs as the company forges ahead with new product lines to complement its well-known pork products, most notably sausage and meatballs.
"For a small company to survive, we need to constantly bring new products to market," said Conty, vice president of operations. "Once an idea is developed on a product, the next step is to ensure that the product will be safe for consumption. This is when we contact our friends at Penn State Extension. We get direction. We get confirmation. We get whatever we need to ensure we are producing a safe product. Penn State Extension is a key asset to our company."
Campbell helped them to obtain Safe Quality Food Certification, an elite designation that major retailers increasingly are seeking from food manufacturers, and introduced Caric to the Eastern Meat Packers Association, a group that stays abreast on legislative issues and research relevant to the meat processing industry. Caric recently assumed a leadership role in the organization.
Working with the owners and staff of Uncle Charley's has been a great experience for Campbell, who shared that he enjoys making a difference in the meat industry in Pennsylvania, nationally and beyond by having Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences serve as a center for groundbreaking research and extension.
"Len, Phil and their staff are eager to learn everything they can about food safety and science, and that is good for the company and its customers and the community," Campbell said. "It's a pleasure to work with such an enthusiastic and progressive company."
Penn State Extension's relationship with Uncle Charley's is not unique -- extension specialists work with numerous food manufacturers, small and large, in Pennsylvania and surrounding states through online and on-site seminars covering commercial food safety, the Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, and many other topics.
"As a land-grant university, we are committed to doing our part to ensure our nation's food supply is safe," Campbell said. "To do that, we educate those who are responsible for making our food on the latest research in preventing foodborne illness, best practices in food handling and current regulations."
A cornucopia of food safety information, including commercial and retail information, is available on Penn State Extension's website.