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Cultivating New Credentials in Cyberspace
by Linda L. Leake, MS
Flexible. Adaptable. Anytime. Anywhere. That's how Michigan State University (MSU) touts its landmark online Master of Science (MS) in Food Safety program, believed to be the world's first online graduate program focusing on food safety. More than 435 students representing 26 countries, 39 states, and some 227 employers have been accepted into the program since it was launched in the fall of 2002. To date, 174 individuals have completed the degree.
“Our average student is a mid-level, mid-career professional working in industry or government regulation,” says Julie Funk, DVM, PhD, director of the program. “Professionals come to our online program to advance their food safety knowledge without having to leave their home communities and current employment.”
The MSU MS Food Safety program consists of ten three-credit courses, including core requirements (21 credits) and electives (nine credits). In lieu of a thesis, a three-credit applied food safety project is part of the required 30 credits.
The required courses are Introduction to Food Safety and Professional Development; Evolution and Ecology of Foodborne Pathogens; Food Safety Toxicology; Foodborne Disease Epidemiology; Food Safety Research Methods; Applied Project in Food Safety; and a choice of International Food Laws & Regulations or U.S. Food Laws & Regulations. Electives are chosen from a list of more than 20 courses.
The degree can be completed within two to three years, depending on the number of credits taken per semester. “Most students complete the degree within an average of three years, but we do allow a maximum of five years for completion,” Dr. Funk says.
Usha Kalro, a nutritionist with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, completed the MSU program in 2007 as a compliment to her Registered Dietition and Licensed Dietition credentials. “My Master's degree empowers me to speak with authority on food safety topics,” Kalro says. “This is a tremendous benefit to my career, my work, and the consumers I serve.”
As an alternative to the Master of Science degree, MSU offers an online Certificate in Food Safety, which is achieved through completion of any four approved 3-credit courses within the MS in Food Safety curriculum.
For more information: www.online.foodsafety.msu.edu
Established in 2006, the Online Master of Agricultural and Life Sciences (ALS) program offered by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VT) is geared toward adult learners who desire to develop new knowledge and skills in human health and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, food safety and regulation, leadership, and social change, or formal and non-formal education to meet society's changing needs and expectations.
To that end, six degree concentration areas are available for this MS degree including Food Safety; Biosecurity, Bioregulations, and Public Health; Education; Environmental Science; Plant Science and Pest Management; and Leadership Studies.
The VT MS Food Safety option is designed for public health professionals and others interested in the microbiological safety of food, water, and the environment, including the development and enforcement of laws and regulations affecting food production and processing, and the implementation of food safety management programs, according to James Anderson, II, VT's director of distance and graduate education.
“All students pursuing the Food Safety option are considered graduate students in the VT Department of Food Science & Technology,” Dr. Anderson says. “But in addition to their required courses, they can choose electives in the other academic departments that meet their specific professional needs and interests.”
Student enrollment has steadily increased for the VT food safety concentration from four students in 2007-2008 to 20 students today, 2013-2014. Some 15 students have completed this online MS degree, and three more are expected to graduate in 2014. “Thus far, food safety students have represented seven states, but the welcome mat is always out for international enrollees,” says Jennifer Carr, graduate program coordinator for the online MS ALS.
Christy Brennan completed the VT MS Food Safety program in 2009. She says her degree was instrumental in helping her transition mid-career from a corporate quality control/food safety auditor position to her current role as rapid response team/manufactured foods specialist with the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in Richmond, Va.
“It is very important for a food industry professional to stay updated on the sweeping changes in food safety,” Brennan emphasizes. “Everyone may know their small piece of the puzzle, but it is important to understand how that translates to the big picture of the entire food chain. I believe that continuing education is instrumental in understanding the entirety of today's complex food safety systems that impact public health.
“My graduate program was easy to manage and even though it was all online, I always felt like I was part of a class and had continued support and feedback from the faculty,” Brennan continues. “I really enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal. I was able to incorporate information from the program immediately into my professional career.”
Brennan is quick to mention that she has worked with people that have been involved in the food industry for 20 to 30 years that feel they don't have to keep up with new developments. “That is so sad,” Brennan asserts. “The best thing we can do with our graduate food safety education is to mentor and encourage both our younger and older counterparts. In light of the changes coming with FSMA [Food Safety Modernization Act], staying abreast of food industry developments helps us all affectively apply due diligence in ensuring the safety of global food systems. We all have to do our part to stay current. You should never stop learning.”
For more information: www.cals.vt.edu/online
University of Arkansas
Established in 2006 at the University of Arkansas (UARK), the MS in Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences (MS AFLS) Food Safety is a 30-hour, Web-based, non-thesis MS degree designed specifically for people already in a career track who are interested in an advanced degree in the area of food safety and quality.
“This degree is designed to prepare students for higher positions in the food industry,” says Diana Bisbee, EdD, program coordinator. “The program provides a subject matter core of courses in food microbiology, sanitation, food processing, epidemiology, food law, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points applications, human diseases, and other quality control areas facing the food industry. In addition, the structure of the courses results in the sharing of food safety knowledge across food companies by addressing complex issues and ever increasing academic rigor.”
Most of the students who are currently in the MS AFLS Food Safety program are employed in industry and currently involved in their employer's food safety program, thereby exemplifying the true definition of distance learners, Dr. Bisbee relates. “In a recent survey, students in the program said that if it were not for this program, they would never go back to school as traditional students to get an advanced degree,” she says.
Students typically take one course per semester (fall, spring, summer) for nine semesters and then work on a special food safety or quality problem. “The special problem is one of the student's choosing and allows the student to set up and conduct an experiment and evaluate the results using the all the skills learned in the MS AFLS Food Safety program,” Dr. Bisbee says.
After completing the special problem, the student makes a presentation on the project to his or her committee through technology from the student's location.
There are currently 34 students enrolled in the MS AFLS Food Safety program, which is administered by the UARK Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences and is offered through the UARK School of Continuing Education and Academic Outreach. Anyone in any state who meets the admissions requirements can enroll, however international students who live outside the U.S. are not being admitted at this time.
“Students can typically complete the degree in three years or less,” says Steve Seideman, PhD, a faculty advisor in the MS AFLS Food Safety program. “The program offers students flexibility, convenience and quality education while maintaining their current career position.”
Suzanne Finstad, director of food safety & regulatory compliance for Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., completed the program in three and a half years and graduated in December 2009.
Her employer offers an educational assistance program that provides 75 percent tuition reimbursement in exchange for good grades (“B” or above). “I'm proud to work for a company that fully supports and encourages advanced educational opportunities such as this,” Finstad says. “Without the support of Tyson Foods, it's extremely unlikely that I would have found the time to pursue a graduate degree.”
Finstad's graduate project was a literature review related to Salmonella and broiler processing. Her paper was peer-reviewed and published in Food Research International.
Having the ability to develop a project directly related to her work was invaluable, Finstad emphasizes. “Not only was the subject matter of interest to me personally, but it was also of interest to Tyson Foods,” she says, calling it “a win-win situation for the graduate student and the company.”
“The MS AFLS Food Safety program offered by the University of Arkansas is a great option for professionals wanting to advance their education while maintaining a career,” Finstad adds. “The UARK School of Continuing Education and Academic Outreach is uniquely positioned to balance the demands of full-time employment and graduate students' desire for an advanced degree in their field.”
University of Illinois
Since 2010, the University of Illinois (U of I) Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) has offered an online non-thesis MS Food Science degree.
The U of I online MS program is unique in that lectures are delivered live and scheduled during the evening, providing students the ability to interact with instructors and classmates in real-time and outside of regular business hours.
“The online delivery platform makes the program accessible to students in various locations, including those who may also be balancing a travel schedule for their careers,” says Dawn Bohn, PhD, director of U of I off-campus programs. “Many of the students in this program are working professionals and our students live in all regions of the United States and several foreign countries.”
To date, 25 individuals have completed the online MS Food Science degree and 60 are currently enrolled in the program.
To earn the degree, students must complete 32 hours of coursework and then successfully pass an oral examination.
“Thus, for students taking one course at a time, the degree takes approximately four years to complete,” Dr. Bohn says. “Students can register for more than one class each semester; however, it is the recommendation of the FSHN department that a student does not participate in more than two classes in any one semester.”
The online MS Food Science program offers one to three courses each semester, including the summer term.
Courses offered include Food Chemistry; Applied Statistical Methods; Food Processing Engineering; Food Processing I and II; Package Engineering; Food and Industrial Microbiology; Fermented and Distilled Beverages; Chemistry of Lipids in Foods; and Issues in Food Safety. Additionally, Food Science Advanced Topics offerings include Advanced Topics in Sensory Science; Flavor Chemistry and Analysis; Food Enzymology; Water Relations in Foods; and Advanced Special Problems (which includes one to eight hours of supervised research in Food Science).
Melissa Jones, senior manager of supply optimization at Diageo, Plainfield, Ill., a major premium drinks business, completed her Bachelor of Science degree at the U of I campus in Champaign-Urbana, and then completed the online MS Food Science degree in 2011.
“Both my BS and MS degrees have helped me in product development and everything else I do in my job,” Jones says. “The MS degree is a great extension of what I learned as an undergraduate and I found the online format to be a great way to earn the degree while working full time.”
For more information: http://fshn.illinois.edu/online
Washington State University
The online MS in Agriculture: Food Science and Management (Ag FSM) was launched in 2013 to provide food industry professionals with management skills along with a strong science-based program emphasizing emerging trends in food science, sustainability, and global competitiveness, says Barbara Rasco, BSE, PhD, JD, director of the Ag FSM program.
This recent distance learning degree is affiliated with The School of Food Science, a unique fully integrated department between two land grant universities, Washington State University and the University of Idaho.
“The School of Food Science is ranked as one of the top five food science programs in the United States,” Dr. Rasco mentions. “Our award winning faculty includes Fellows of the Institute of Food Technologists who serve as project advisors for the rapidly growing number of students in this new program.
“Our graduates will be agricultural and business leaders moving freely between labs and boardrooms, between factory floors and corporate offices and we are all proud to be part of this,” Dr. Rasco boasts.
Professionals in this MS program can select a project emphasis in dairy, microbiological, or chemical food safety, enology, aquatic foods, functional foods, food processing, or law. “Besides the science, students learn to make strategic decisions and become proficient project managers from the engineering and technology management faculty who are key to the program's success,” Dr. Rasco says.
The MS Ag FSM is a 30-credit, non-thesis program open to students from around the globe. Like all the other online MS programs showcased in this article, all students pay the same tuition regardless of residency status. Part of the MS Ag-FSM program's flexibility is that students can enroll in fall, summer, or spring.
Dr. Rasco notes that the program can be completed in two semesters full time, however most students are part time. “I am amazed at the quality and diversity of individuals in the MS Ag degree,” she points out. “They are from many different disciplines, and will make a huge impact in the food field.”
There are currently 20 students enrolled, and a large number of new students are expected in the fall of 2014, Dr. Rasco reports. “We are building a virtual community for these students and others in agriculture graduate programs across campus,” she mentions. “Most of our students are U.S. residents, along with some from China and South Asia. We will be graduating our first group of students this May.”
Fangliang Carpenter, technical service administrator at Oberto Brands in Seattle, Wash., is one of those MS Ag FSM students who expects to graduate in May 2014.
“The management courses are definitely helping me directly right now in my workplace,” Carpenter says. “My graduate project focuses on writing a review article about jerky and meat snacks, which ties very closely with my current work responsibilities. Empowered with my graduate degree, I am also enthusiastically looking forward to pursuing a career in food safety and regulation in the near future.”
For more information: http://msag.wsu.edu/food_science/
Leake, a 2006 graduate of the MSU online MS Food Safety program, is a food safety consultant, auditor and award-winning journalist based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at LLLeake@aol.com.