Can vegans work in the mainstream food manufacturing industry? Absolutely, says Annie Ellerman who has a Food Science degree and has worked in the industry for 12+ years as an Engineer, Manager and Specialist, most recently as a Finished Product Testing Quality Manager at General Mills. Throughout her career, Annie has been responsible for the quality of many well-known food products. Originally from Akron, Ohio and a graduate of the Ohio State University, Annie currently lives in Philadelphia where she enjoys hiking and traveling when she is not working.
What does a food quality testing manager do? Does the work ever pose a challenge for a vegan?
Annie: My most recent Finished Product Testing Quality Manager role involved coordinating the analytical testing of products across numerous U.S. manufacturing facilities. The role did not require me to eat the foods with which I interacted. However, in a past Quality Manager role, I did work in a facility that manufactured many products I chose not to consume. Since I was ultimately responsible for product flavor so that consumers received the same product every time, I empowered my employees to make product decisions by developing programs, procedures and standards for product quality in addition to taste.
What had initially moved you to become vegan?
Annie: Growing up, my parents never cooked much meat, due to health factors along with interest in healthy ethnic food (i.e. 1980’s style Asian.) Therefore, we enjoyed many vegetable dishes but the occasional fish and chicken. When I got to college, I thought a lot about how my actions could affect the well-being of the environment and animals. Luckily, The Ohio State University had an outstanding vegetarian commons where I not only met my best friends, but realized how easy it was to forgo meat. After about five years, my lactose intolerance along with new awareness of the cruel treatment of animals – not to mention the health benefits – prompted me to go fully vegan. It’s been about 12 years now and I couldn’t be happier with that choice!
During your time at a major food company, have you seen any shifts in the direction of the industry (more focus on development of plant-based products, a more favorable perception of vegans in the workplace etc.)?
Annie: I definitely observed that more companies were shifting to offering healthier options for consumers and increasingly labeling them as vegan. It became clear that this language was important to consumers who did not wish to read the whole ingredient list. The other part I learned while working for a large food company is that allergen, sanitation and regulatory management could be real challenges in manufacturing meat and/or dairy products. Therefore, I saw much more development efforts focused toward products that just happened to be vegan!
Do you have a favorite way to “recharge your vegan batteries”?
Annie: Yes! I love cooking, especially for larger groups. It is so rewarding to hear “this is so good, I can’t believe it’s vegan!”. I have either hosted or attended vegan thanksgiving for almost 15 years now – always a great success!
What advice would you give to vegans working in a traditionally vegan-unfriendly industry or living in a location with few vegan options or no vegan community?
Annie: Hang in there! I have been there. For me, it was a great opportunity to develop my cooking skills, expand my network (I found Meetup very helpful), and educate others on my choices… let them see firsthand that I am not unhealthy, I get plenty of protein and have a ton of tasty food options.