A summer job that led to a career change in food science for people and pets

Rhondi Shigemura-Webster stumbled onto the path of food science by accident. As an undergrad studying medical research, she needed a summer job to help pay tuition and was hired to work with her best friend’s father at Conagra Brands. She had so much fun developing new products based on science and nutrition that she went to graduate school to study food science.

For more than 20 years, she’s been using various science disciplines to address the way food is processed and helping develop products that taste good and improve their nutritional value. Ultimately, her work involves improving food for people and pets.

Before her summer working at Conagra, “I never knew that food science and developing new products existed,” she says.

“You also better be a foodie or love flavors because if you are developing products, they have to taste good, too.”

Shigemura-Webster, 55, lives in Encinitas with her husband, John, and they have two boys. She’s the vice president of research and development for Raybern Foods, and she also makes time for her passion for animals as an owner and operator, with her husband, of a dog daycare center in San Marcos. She took some time to talk about her work in food science, caring for and raising money for animals and animal organizations, and her love of surfing in her free time.

Q: What, exactly, is food science?

A: It is a combination of multiple science disciplines from biochemistry, nutrition, food engineering, microbiology, chemistry to better understand food processing and ultimately improving food products for people.

Q: What are some issues you’ve worked on, or products you’ve created, that people may recognize?

A: That’s a secret, but I’ve worked on famous secret sauces and seasonings for a well-known taco chain with a bell, a well-known pizza chain, a large smoothie company that rhymes with “bamba,” a large coffee company, and other retail brands that include Hot Pockets, Lean Cuisine, Purina and others. I’ve also worked with Jenny Craig products to make weight-loss products taste delicious while losing weight. These are awesome tasting products, healthy, nutritious and helps people maintain or get to their ideal weight, but they’re very challenging to formulate.

Dog products are difficult to formulate because your consumer can’t tell you if they like it or not. Various breeds will chow down on the entire bowl of food whether it tastes good or not; others are picky and can’t tell you why they don’t like the flavor or texture of the treat. So, there are special tests especially for dogs and cats that help us develop great tasting and nutritious products for animals.

Q: Has working with food in this way affected your relationship with food?

A: Yes, I once worked on a chicken and beef fajita project, working with more than six chicken manufacturing plants and four beef processing plants. After that project, I became a vegetarian for five years. I can eat chicken now; no red meat, though. When you see more than 200 big 18-wheeler trucks lined up at a beef manufacturing plant, cranking out 12,000 heads of cattle in a day (and there are hundreds of beef manufacturers in the U.S.), it shows you how much meat we eat and export, and the impact on our environment concerning our water supply, air quality, the ozone layer, CO2 emissions, ecosystems, and our health. The amount of land and resources it takes to supply one pound of meat vs. vegetables or grains is not even comparable.

Q: What do you love about Encinitas?

A: I love that we have access to so many surf spots (Beacons, Grandview, D Street, Swami’s) that we can walk to so many great restaurants, wine bars, and pubs from our house. Everyone here in our community is laidback, not pretentious, and very down-to-earth. We know and love all of our neighbors. We have a really tight neighborhood.

Q: You also work with animals with your husband, organizing events and fundraisers for local animal rescue groups and animal charities? What are some of the fundraisers and events that you’ve organized?

A: We believe charity starts in our community, and we hold charity dog washes and other events like “yappy hours” (and) adoption events. We set up donations during Thanksgiving and Christmas, collecting food, blankets, treats, first-aid kits for the San Diego Humane Society, and either (contribute) to or (raise) money for Paws with a Cause, Shelter to Soldier, Ridgebacks and Friends, the Helen Woodward Animal Center, the Escondido Humane Society, local schools and more. I think, since 2014, we’ve raised and contributed more than $34,000 to these local and national causes. It is very important to us that we give back to our communities. If we can touch and impact someone or some pup, they in turn will impact others, and so on and so on.

Q: Why do you feel compelled to support these groups in this way?

A: Not everyone is as fortunate as us or our dogs. We see so many shelter dogs or rescue dogs that are neglected and or need loving homes. We have schools and communities that are short of funds for extracurricular activities such as computer science classes, visual arts, sports, liberal arts and other needs. We have to help support our communities. It starts with us and getting the word out. We need to all help promote and raise funds for these non-profits, schools, and for our communities. It starts with one dog at a time, one family at a time, one business at a time, one community at a time.

Q: You’re also coordinating pet safety education for the holidays? What are some tips on keeping pets safe during the holidays?

A: People forget about dog and pet safety during the holidays. For the upcoming holidays, people should remember to watch out for loud noises like door bells or opening and closing doors, which can scare pets and they can dart out the front door with visitors. Make sure your dog has an up-to-date tag with address and phone number, and if possible, board them or put them in a separate room when having company over. Watch out for snow globes or potpourri because they can have poisonous additives. Keep holiday plants — poinsettias, lilies, holly, mistletoe — away from pets. Also, keep tinsel and holiday ornaments away from pets because they can chew on them and choke. And always keep the pet poison helpline number handy (800-213-6680).

Q: Why is your work in food science important to you?

A: I love the creative side of developing and launching new products, mentoring and teaching new food scientists, and ensuring that there are healthy and nutritious options for people. We are an obese nation, yet we still have malnutrition in our nation; I don’t understand that. We have to continue to change that with child and school nutrition programs.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: To lead by example, never ask your team to do anything that you would not do yourself, and to create and foster a team environment. You hire smart people so they can tell you what to do, and not for you to tell them what to do.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I surf when I can. And, I have 2.5 tattoos.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Hmm, my husband and I both work two jobs, but we love working at Dogtown Resort and working with our team, our clients, and their wonderful dogs. It just helps me unwind. Our ideal San Diego weekend would be to take a Saturday off to go for the walk on the beach and hang with the surfers and our family.

--Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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