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How more than 100,000,000 lbs. of low-fat cheese ended up in school cafeterias

Michael Tunick knows a thing or two about cheese (and wrote a book about it)
Industry Matters Newsletter
Michael Tunick, Assistant Professor, Department of Food and Hospitality Management, Drexel University
Michael Tunick, Assistant Professor, Department of Food and Hospitality Management, Drexel University

Michael H. Tunick had 40 years of experience as a chemist and research chemist at the United States Department of Agriculture after serving there as a student trainee. He planned and conducted research aimed at creating new dairy products and expanding marketability of existing products. He also led and executed his research unit’s effort on basic and applied aspects of rheology of dairy commodities. 

Dr. Tunick has expertise in thermal analysis using differential scanning calorimetry, microstructural analysis using scanning and transmission electron microscopy, microbiology of bacteria, and rheology of materials using texture profile analysis and small amplitude oscillatory shear analysis. He was also an adjunct faculty member at Drexel University, teaching food chemistry and related courses, until he started at Drexel full-time in September 2017 upon retiring from the USDA. He teaches Food Chemistry, Food Microbiology lecture and laboratory, Food Composition & Behavior, Microbial Food Safety & Sanitation lecture and laboratory, Food Preservation Processes, Food & the Senses, and Dairy Science. He also mentors students in the MS in Food Science program.

Dr. Tunick has authored or coauthored over 130 publications, has coedited seven books, and has co-chaired over 20 symposia in the Division of Agricultural & Food Chemistry in ACS. He served on the ACS Speaker Service with more than 50 presentations at universities and at ACS local sections. ACS has asked him to present webinars to their membership on the chemistry of both cheese and chocolate. He served as AGFD Chair in 2001, Secretary from 2003 to 2018, and Councilor starting in 2019. He became an ACS Fellow in 2011 and Oxford University Press published his book “The Science of Cheese” in 2013.   

You started working with the USDA immediately after completing your undergraduate degree. Take us back to that time. What was the appeal of the USDA, as opposed to opportunities in industry or academia? 

I chose to attend Drexel University primarily because it has an extensive cooperative education program. During the middle three years, students attend school half the time and work in a field related to their majors half the time. Drexel assigned me to the USDA, like many of their chemistry majors then, and they offered me a job when I graduated. It was a good place to start my scientific career.

For about eight years, you worked as a chemist in the USDA’s Hides & Leather Laboratory and Engineering Science Laboratory. What were your primary responsibilities during that part of your career?

In Hides & Leather, we worked on mitigating pollution from tanneries. After a year, I began to study for a PhD in chemistry (on a part-time basis) at Temple University. Then the Engineering Science Lab needed someone who could do physical chemistry and analytical chemistry, which were my areas of specialization, and the center director transferred me there. The new research group worked on dairy products and soon split off into its own unit, and I stayed with it for 33 years.

What’s the profile of a person entering the job market today who will enjoy and thrive applying their scientific knowledge on behalf of the USDA or some other government entity? Knowing what you know now, would your 22-year-old self again choose the USDA? 

Always be flexible, whether in academia, industry, or government. My career went from fractionating animal fat (as a co-op student) to tannery waste to cheese, all in the same building. Saying “that’s not what I signed up for” is not going to get you too far. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, like other government research agencies, provides a stable and secure job with little threat of layoffs, and I would choose it again. 

You developed a low-fat Mozzarella cheese that has been used in the National School Lunch Program since 1995. To date, more than 100,000,000 pounds of this cheese, valued at more than $140,000,000, have been purchased for the National School Lunch Program. What first brought this matter to your attention?  

The USDA’s Food and Consumer Service approached us with a problem: pizza is the favorite lunch in schools, but parents do not like to see a puddle of oil sitting on top of the food their children eat. Could our group, which was (and still is) the only one in USDA researching dairy products, come up with a low-fat Mozzarella that tastes, melts, and stretches well? We were able to develop this cheese by examining its microbiology, microstructure, and rheology, and tested it in schools. This was my greatest research success. 

If you had to break it out in rough percentages, how much of your career success do you owe to (a) your formal academic schooling, (b) the professional training provided by your employers, and (c) general ‘on the job’ experience?

My formal schooling provided the basics for doing my job, so I give that 20%. The professional training was another 10%. However, on the job experience was the most valuable portion, worth 70%. 

You are a prolific author, having authored or coauthored over 130 publications, and having coedited seven books. How did you become a good writer? And what is your motivation for writing so frequently? 

My motivation for writing publications was continuing my employment! Through much of my career, scientists were required to write a senior-authored paper or two co-authored papers a year for refereed journals. If invited to write a book chapter, I accepted because it helps with recognition, which leads to other things. I have co-chaired some symposia at ACS National Meetings and asked the speakers to write chapters that turned into Symposium Series Books. Writing improves with practice, and I have tried to delete unnecessary words and jargon to make the publications read better.

In 2013, Oxford University Press published your book, “The Science of Cheese.” Can you share a few interesting facts about cheese that our readers may not know? 

Cheese is constantly changing since the microorganisms used to make it either continue to survive or die and break open, releasing enzymes that attack the proteins. Some cheese ripens from the outside in (because of surface mold or yeast), and the rest ripens from the inside out. Many varieties developed by accident, such as leaving curd in a cave or making a mistake in the procedure, and the result turned out well enough to replicate on purpose.

Speaking of cheese, even though properly refrigerated, can you speculate why I so often see mold growing on the cheese well-before the printed expiration date on the package? I suspect I’m not the only one who experiences this.

Mold spores are ubiquitous in the environment, including refrigerators, and settle on cheese because it is a good source of nutrients. If you see mold growing on a piece of hard cheese, just cut off that portion.

Having completed your undergraduate degree at Drexel, your PhD at Temple, and having spent 40 years with the USDA facility in Wyndmoor, PA, you have been pretty much been all-Philadelphia, all the time. What kept you in in the greater Philadelphia area for the last 45 years? 

Another reason I attended Drexel is the fact that I could take public transportation to and from our house. We did not have a huge amount of money and commuting kept costs down. Then I got the full-time job and there was no good reason to move away. 

Talk about the metaphorical “one that got away”. Is there a project that eluded you? Why? And if you could return to it, what would you do differently?

In the late 1990s, the National Zoo asked me about adjusting milk components for feeding baby pandas. China wanted to send a couple over (which they did in 2000) and hoped to get information that would help them survive. I thought about pursuing this area as a project but the scope was too limited. Perhaps pushing forward would have yielded interesting results.

You are a long-time member of the ACS Division of Agricultural & Food Chemistry. How has that affiliation benefitted you? 

Becoming active in AGFD since 1993 has helped my career immensely. Organizing symposia, serving on committees, and chairing the division have taught me leadership skills and connected me with other scientists in the field, many of whom are now good friends. Volunteering with a division can be time consuming but it is more than worth it personally and professionally.

In 2017, you started a new chapter in your career, as Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Food & Hospitality Management, College of Nursing & Health Professions, at Drexel University. In what ways do you find this work rewarding? 

I am responsible for eight food science courses at Drexel, and now I get to teach students many of the things I learned on the job. Seeing them graduate and get good jobs on their own is always gratifying.

With over 30 years conducting dairy research, you’re a good person to ask this question: Who makes the best ice cream? And what’s your favorite flavor? 

As a native Philadelphian, I am obligated to say that Bassett’s ice cream, with a whopping 17% fat, is the best. They started in Philadelphia in 1861, making them the oldest ice cream maker and shop in the U.S. Anything with chocolate in it is a favorite of mine.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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