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As Regulatory Oversight Grows, Career Development in Food Safety Shifts
by Tim Donald
Changes in the food industry, including increased regulatory attention on food safety, are having profound effects on career development paths and opportunities for food safety professionals, according to experts involved in industry and academia. The Food Safety Modernization Act, along with other factors, has resulted in a growing demand for both young, entry-level food safety professionals and more experienced hands—the future leaders in the field. At the same time, a movement toward formalizing training in a systematic fashion is under way.
“We have certainly seen companies hire more food safety professionals recently, and also there are more and more individuals who are into their careers in their fields going back to school to attain higher degrees,” said Michael Roberson, director of corporate quality assurance for Publix Super Markets Inc., of Lakeland, Fla. “This is something that a lot of people in the food industry are working on: trying to find the next generation of leaders in food safety and quality assurance, developing those leaders, seeing where those leaders are coming from.”
“I’d say there has been a push in food safety for the past couple of years,” said Moira McGrath, president of OPUS International, an executive search firm specializing in technical positions in the food science industry. “Food safety has become a huge area for food manufacturers to stock up and staff up.”
Staffing up is also taking place on the regulatory side. In response to the passage and ongoing implementation of the FSMA, regulatory agencies in the U.S. have been adding entry-level personnel and moving talented individuals into leadership roles.
“On the regulatory side, there are concerns in some states of a food safety workforce with no succession planning. This can be concerning, especially if there are many retirements at one time,” Roberson said.
As a result, efforts have begun to standardize food safety training and define career paths in the field, according to industry and regulatory observers. At the same time, some educational institutions are attempting to align their food safety programs with these career paths, as they advise students about the professional possibilities for young people with food safety degrees.
—Gerald Wojtala, IFPTI
‘Before these young people even get into their careers, they can start aligning with some of these professions and careers, so it really provides a pathway right from their education into their careers, and then [as they] continue training.’
Integration of Industry with Regulations
The International Food Protection Training Institute (IFPTI) was formed in 2009 to address a lack of standardization and integration in the training of food safety inspectors and regulators. The IFPTI, based in Battle Creek, Mich. and supported by grants from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is an initiative of the Global Food Protection Institute and is closely aligned with the Association of Food and Drug Officials.
In its first couple of years of operation, the IFPTI focused mainly on training regulators and inspectors, but it is broadening its focus to address the whole range of food safety professionals, including those working in industry, according to officials with the institute.
“Yes, the first focus was on the regulatory community, but we realize that we need to connect and link all the training networks and training providers through a system. It’s really a systems approach, not limited to regulators,” said Gerald Wojtala, executive director of the IFPTI. “If you talk to folks in industry, they’ll readily tell you that there’s so much in common in food safety issues and training that you shouldn’t have separation, whether it’s regulatory or industry or laboratory people or veterinarians. So we want to make sure there is not a lot of duplication and that people are getting common training across the board, across professions.”
More than 90% of food safety inspections in U.S. food manufacturing and distribution establishments are carried out by state and local agencies, yet there has been no mandatory training and no career-spanning, standards-based training curriculum for food safety professionals in these agencies, according to the IFPTI.
The institute aims to implement a national food safety training system and develop certification to help ensure that the performance of food safety professionals is comparable and competent at all levels, including local, state, national, and international. To do this, the IFPTI has designed a curriculum framework that identifies four levels in food safety careers: entry level, journey level, technical specialists, and leadership.
This division helps to create a career pathway for those who aspire to move up in their professions. Training courses can be mapped to the framework, identifying them as appropriate for entry level, journey level, and so on, thereby eliminating the hit-or-miss nature of choosing courses, Wojtala said. Time for personnel development is a limited commodity, so managers must make the most of it, he said.
“Program managers and supervisors who make decisions about training staff now can do it more wisely,” he said. “By having this career pathway and sequencing, it really eliminates a lot of guesswork, and we’ve seen that benefit in people not spending money and wasting time for courses that are not appropriate for the audience or are not at the right level.”
The framework is also helping colleges and universities align their educational programs with the career pathways, Wojtala mentioned.
“Before these young people even get into their careers, they can start aligning with some of these professions and careers, so it really provides a pathway right from their education into their careers, and then [as they] continue training,” he said.
Education and training are two different things, Wojtala emphasized, and it is important to distinguish the two in designing—and choosing—a course for career advancement. The technologies used in training must be appropriate to the subject matter, he said.
“We’ve all sat through three days of a course that we probably could have taken online or read in a book,” he said. “In a face-to-face course, you want to have a lot of hands-on and observation: for example, teaching someone how to take a food sample. You want an instructor there who can give feedback or do an assessment of your technique—whereas the information about that sample could be read online, so you save a lot of time.”
The ways young professionals learn also seem to be changing, said Roberson of Publix.
“Nothing will ever replace the watch-me, follow-me, show-me type of training,” he said, “but as we look to the next generation, how do our young people learn best? We’re trying to figure out how we can leverage technology, be it tablet technology or different gaming systems, to provide more interactive training with a virtual reality-type environment.”
With the aim of identifying and developing tomorrow’s leaders, the IFPTI now offers an accredited fellowship in food protection for experienced food regulatory professionals (journey and technical levels). The highly selective program comprises three week-long programs in Battle Creek, capped by a trip to the annual AFDO meeting, where final posters and projects are presented.
“We’ve had so much success with this program on the regulatory side that we want to expand it and have an industry fellowship program that intersects with the regulatory program so that we have people training together and learning together, these future leaders,” Wojtala said.
—Michael Roberson, Publix Super Markets Inc.
‘On the regulatory side, there are concerns in some states of a food safety workforce with no succession planning. This can be concerning, especially if there are many retirements at one time.’
As for food science students looking to enter the field of food safety, McGrath said the relevant degrees could be a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in food science or food microbiology. More specifically, there is a master’s program in food safety at Michigan State University, she said.
“The positions available would include plant positions, where they manage the quality or food safety department at a manufacturing facility,” she said. “Or they could go into a corporate role, where they could be food safety scientists, food safety specialists, food microbiologists, or quality assurance specialists.”
Robert Shewfelt, a professor of food science and technology at the University of Georgia in Athens, noted that food safety students must understand the nature of the business they are going into.
“There is a tension between manufacturing, which gets reward for output, and quality control, which is responsible to ensure there is not a safety issue,” he said.
Roberson agreed. “Yes, companies have food safety programs, but at the end of the day there must be a connection between a strong food safety culture combined with the business aspect of providing a return on the food safety investment,” he said. “Somehow, as we develop the next generation of professionals in food safety and food quality, we have to do a better job so that food safety leaders have an understanding of business.”
Roberson expressed enthusiasm for the INROADS internship program (www.inroads.org), with which Publix is a corporate partner.
“We’ve found the partnership program to be quite successful. It has allowed us to provide early access and development of students with leadership potential and offer them an opportunity to gain professional experience to increase their potential to advance in their chosen career field at Publix,” he said.
“There is a wide range of job opportunities and a lot of opportunity for advancement,” Shewfelt said. “Most of our food science graduates end up in the food industry, but there is also regulatory, academic teaching, or research.”
He noted that the salary structure in the industry is good and that it is “a wide open field for women, but at a man’s salary structure. That may not be politically correct to say, but there is something to it.”
Tim Donald is a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering a variety of industries. Reach him at email@example.com.