In the test kitchen at Sabra’s Center of Excellence, Sabra Executive Chef Mary Dawn Wright spends a lot of time thinking about, looking at, tasting and researching the ingredients for hummus—chickpeas and tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds. Wright, who is a classically trained chef, now describes herself as an international expert on chickpeas and tahini.
“Those are two things that are so critical for our product because hummus is like the Pinot Noir of dips; it’s so simple and clean that you have to have it just right,” she says.
Sabra’s research and development facility in Chesterfield County, VA opened its doors in 2013 and is located on the site of its hummus manufacturing plant, which is also the world’s biggest hummus factory. And it was in this facility that Listeria monocytogenes was identified although it was not found in any of the finished product, according to the FDA, but did spur a voluntary recall at the end of last month. No illnesses have been reported, and the company’s organic hummus, salsa, guacamole and Greek yogurt dips were not included in the recall.
“Despite knowing our (hummus) products were not testing positive, we decided to issue a voluntary recall,” says Ilya Welfeld, who handles media relations for Sabra.
Sabra will continue with all the food safety processes the company already has in place, such as testing of incoming ingredients, environmental testing as well as testing finished product and holding the product until it is confirmed safe, she says. Along with its in-house food safety experts, Sabra also brought in third-party advisors onsite to get opinions of what additional food safety processes can be done or updated.
“There are always new technologies coming out and new things you can learn, and so we immediately put in place the new measures,” Welfeld says. “And on an ongoing basis, those measures will continue to be evaluated.”
More recently, there has been another unrelated recall of certain Trader Joe’s hummus products, but that does not mean hummus is more susceptible to Listeria.
“I think it’s a reflection of the increased scrutiny of FSMA, with FDA trying to solve problematic food cases that so far haven’t been solved,” says Tulin Tuzel, chief technology officer for Sabra. “And the increased scrutiny is a good thing, but I wouldn’t say hummus is more susceptible to Listeria. In fact, it might be a little less susceptible since it’s an intermediate pH food; it’s not a high pH food that can grow bacteria easily.”
Despite the recall, 2016 was actually a year of innovation for Sabra. In an effort to become more a part of their customers’ eating experiences, the company expanded its product line to include things like Veggie Fusions guacamole and hummus packaged in tubes, as well as added non-GMO labeling on its non-GMO hummus flavors.
“Our products are at the core of building the brand, so the focus on our products is food safety first, but quality and innovation next,” says Tuzel. “Really, our focus is to develop an innovative, healthy, wholesome product portfolio.”
Wright says to produce the best tasting hummus, the key is to procure the best ingredients.
“We look at the tahini from the ground up, literally. The seeds: where they are planted, how they’re grown, what’s the harvest like, the hulling, roasting and the manufacturing process of the sesame seeds to make the tahini,” she says.
Sabra works with its suppliers to get the exact flavor profile of the tahini the company needs for its hummus. Wright says the same type of guidance is given to the chickpeas suppliers, instructing them on the right flavor profile as dictated by the sugar, protein, starch and fat content. After that, it’s all about the production execution.
“You really have to treat the chickpeas nicely in your manufacturing process in order for them to have this nice, beautiful, sweet bean flavor that we have in our hummus,” she says.
Wright says the Sabra plant is full of people with a lot of strong opinions and historical information on tahini. So when the company works with suppliers, they bring 21st century knowledge to a process that has ancient roots, which can sometimes elicit a few cultural conflicts.
Tuzel says the company will continue to expand interjecting hummus into more parts of their consumers’ daily lives and to target more occasions, such as suggesting hummus as a breakfast toast spread for added protein or substituting hummus for mayo on sandwiches to cut down on fat.
“Near and dear to us is to combine our efforts with wellness and nutrition to play a bigger part in our consumers’ lives with a product that wasn’t very familiar until fairly recently,” Tuzel says.