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University Helps Companies Find Safer Recipe for Sustainability

Federal Grant Funds Workshops and Outreach

Spencer Gifford, Elizabeth Almeida and Joy Onasch
MPH student Spencer Gifford, Elizabeth Almeida of Fat Moon Mushrooms and Joy Onasch of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute attended a university workshop that helped food and beverage companies reduce energy and water use and cut down on toxics and waste.

09/13/2019
By Karen Angelo

A group of local food and beverage companies huddled on campus recently to learn more about sustainable manufacturing and cleaning processes as well as available resources, including grants and technical assistance, that can help them reduce energy and water use and cut down on toxics and waste. 

The workshop was one of a series of events supported by a grant to UML’s Lowell Center for Sustainable Production from the Environmental Protection Agency to promote pollution prevention in food processing and beverage manufacturing. 

“Food and beverage companies use a great deal of energy to process, store and transport their products, so there’s a lot of room for improvement,” says Madeline Snow, project manager of UML’s Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. “Companies are realizing that by becoming more sustainable and preventing pollution at the source, they can reduce costs and regulatory requirements, improve worker safety and enhance brand and reputation.” 

David Gazda of Gorton’s Seafood of Gloucester told the group that customers are fueling change at his organization. 

“Millennials are a driver for us,” Gazda said. “They are worried about waste. They examine packaging, labels and websites to make sure companies are operating sustainably.” 

That’s part of a national trend. According to Nielsen data, 48 percent of U.S. consumers are willing to change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. 

Gorton’s Seafood was one of 11 companies that received a certificate of recognition for their sustainability efforts at the event. The other companies include Fat Moon Mushrooms of Westford, Kettle Cuisine of Lynn, Ocean Spray of Middleborough, The Plenus Group of Lowell, Stop and Shop, Merrimack Ales of Lowell, Redhook Brewery of Portsmouth, N.H., CommonWealth Kitchen of Quincy, the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office and Mill City Grows of Lowell. 

Asst. Prof. Boce Zhang of the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences, a food safety expert, described how his lab verifies that alternative solutions can work and meet food safety standards. Working with the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UML, Zhang and his students have helped Kettle Cuisine, Fat Moon Mushrooms, Little Leaf Farms and Merrimack Ales find safer cleaning and sanitizing alternatives. 

TURI research assistant and Master of Public Health student Spencer Gifford is testing alternative cleaning methods for Fat Moon Mushrooms and Merrimack Ales. 

"It’s been really interesting to see the dynamic between chemical, social and economic processes I've learned about in class in the real world. I'd like to pursue a career in food sustainability and environmental justice, so having this hands-on experience working with companies will help me when I graduate,” says Gifford. 

Turning Waste Into Products, Reducing Toxics 

The companies are increasingly looking for ways to reduce waste. For example, Ocean Spray of Middleboro said its popular Craisins are developed from the cranberry hulls left over from extracting juice. 

“Sustainability is in our blood,” said Patricia Gallagher, environmental health and safety manager at Ocean Spray. “Our mission is to continue to turn byproduct into product. For example, rather than go to landfill, we have worked with local landscapers and nurseries to create mulch amendments and potting soils.” 

The Plenus Group, a family-owned maker of soups and sauces in Lowell that employs 150, is taking steps to use safer chemicals. The company recently received a $15,000 TURI grant to reduce the use of sodium hydroxide, a corrosive chemical used to clean large cooking vessels that can cause irritation to the eyes and skin. 

Under the guidance of Zhang, clinical laboratory master’s student Mary Fletcher will test safer alternatives onsite at The Plenus Group. 

The 17-year-old company is also building a sustainable workforce. Executive Assistant Allison Jolly said that, for their company, sustainability means that “we can continue to provide our employees with gainful employment and that they are able to support their families on the wages that we pay them.” 

In the fall, the company is rolling out its first employee profit-sharing program. “By greening our bottom line, we look forward to sharing profits with the people that make it possible for us to do what we do,” she said.