posted on December 9, 2010 1:51pm
Robin Green knows that nutrition labels are not legally required for a business her size. But as the brain power behind Midge’s Muffins, she is smart enough to realize that if she wants to play in the big leagues, she has to look like she belongs there. And that means having clear, concise and accurate nutrition labels on her packaging.
“We are still a relatively small company,” Green says about her business selling gluten-, egg- and dairy-free muffins that are edging their way into retailers’ markets throughout west Michigan. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require nutrition labeling until a company’s sales reach an excess of $500,000.
“But,” explains Green, “customers want to know what they are eating. Anything you sell has to have a nutrition label to be taken seriously.”
Cue Janice Harte, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University (MSU
). Harte considers nutrition labeling serious business.
“There is a big trend toward specialty, local foods, and small businesses can help fill that niche,” Harte says. “People like food with a story—a farm family who raises dairy cows may now create artisan cheeses. We can help them take their idea to the next level.”
Nutrition labels are only one part of a successful business, and Dianne Novak says it’s an important part. Novak, a registered dietician, is an innovations counselor for the MSU
Product Center. She says nutrition labels are imperative for small businesses who want to get their foot in the door with large retailers.
“Consumers are becoming more aware of nutrition and how the things they eat affect their health and how they feel,” Novak says. “Our clients interpret this as a good marketing approach because consumers want it and retailers expect it. It’s hard to get a retailer to carry your product if you don’t look as professional as the other products on their shelves.”
Though other food labs in Michigan do regular nutritional analysis for businesses, their fees can throw small businesses out of the game.
“Analytical laboratories charge about $600 just for the nutrition analysis,” Harte says. “And then you still have to generate appropriate labels.”
Harte and her team of undergraduate students generate labels using nutritional labeling software with extensive databases that are approved by the FDA for label generation. Costs for the first product are $100 and $75 for subsequent products from the same company. Novak works closely with clients guiding them through decisions and the requirements for the labeling issues with an initial one-hour consultation fee. And business is booming.
“Four years ago we did maybe 15 labels,” Harte says. “Right now we have more than 70 in the queue.”
She credits the upswing to a poor economy that is encouraging people to look for new business opportunities. But Becca Watts thinks Harte is being modest. The MSU
food science senior conducts much of the day-to-day nutrition labeling work in Harte’s lab. She says much of their business comes from referrals and repeat customers.
“People are happy with our service and are being successful with their products,” she says. “That makes me feel good and tells me that we’re doing a good job.”
Harte, who also heads up the food sensory and product development work at MSU
and has taught more than a dozen food science and dietetics classes at MSU
since the 1980s, says this and other entrepreneurial-focused work wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the investment Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs) makes in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
“They fund a majority of my salary and helped provide the software necessary to do accurate nutritional labels,” she says. “Without their investment, my students and I wouldn’t be able to help food entrepreneurs.”