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Food Safety Goes to School
Training Center Opens at Florida State College at Jacksonville
by Brenda Ridenour
In October, food safety history was made with the opening of the Eurofins Analytical Testing Center located at the Institute for Food Safety on the downtown campus of Florida State College.
From the scientific brainstorming of Florida State College and Eurofins Scientific Inc., a concept took shape: Florida State College would offer a biotechnology program designed to attract bright new talent to serve expanding local needs in life and food sciences. Input from an advisory council made it clear that this type of program would require a facility based on a proven commercial laboratory model to provide students with real-life work situations in a classroom setting. Accomplishing this goal required the right lab partner, so the college reached out to the commercial lab services industry with a request for proposals, and Eurofins responded.
Shortly after the partnership between Florida State College and Eurofins was established, the newly created Institute for Food Safety (IFS) became a reality, with growing support from local commercial entities such as food manufacturers and clinical researchers. Together, this team of collaborators would build the first commercial food testing lab on a college campus.
A final piece of the puzzle, federal funding for the college program, was provided by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education awarded the college’s biotechnology program a three-year Advanced Technical Education grant to develop and disseminate the IFS curriculum. The grant provides for development of a pipeline program for using food safety as a training tool for high school teachers and students interested in food safety as a career and provides funding for developing analytical methods-based course components for the two-year college biotechnology associate in science (AS) program. The funding brings advanced molecular techniques such as real-time polymerase chain reaction and gene sequencing based on food safety to the college.
The food safety curriculum is one of two educational tracks in the biotechnology laboratory technician associate’s degree program at the college. Students pursuing the biotechnology testing laboratory technician option take the same core biotechnology laboratory courses as students on the research laboratory track. Additionally, the IFS students take advanced biotechnology methods courses with an emphasis on regulatory issues, sample handling, and instrument methodology focused on food safety issues.
—Steven R. Wallace, PhD, Florida State College at Jacksonville
They needed personnel now, and the learning curve simply takes too long when the need is immediate.
In late 2009, the first phase of this ambitious program grew from a concept to a complete biotechnology laboratory technician course of study that would provide a sound science curriculum coupled with hands-on practical training in a state-of-the-art on-site working lab. Eurofins and other local commercial supporters will provide internships to students.
As the college went about launching the curriculum, Eurofins began developing plans for a fully operational commercial microbiology laboratory in the Advanced Technology Center located at the college’s downtown campus. The company worked with the advisory board of IFS to design the classroom laboratory, which would encompass an additional laboratory of the same size, as well as a shared resources area.
The shared resources area, yet another unique facet of this collaboration, provides Eurofins staff and students a place to work side by side without infringing on the proprietary and confidential nature of Eurofins’ systems and protocols. Construction began in late spring 2010, but building plans will not end there.
Meeting a Need
“When I became aware of our partnership with the college last year, I knew there was much more that could be done, that should be done,” said Patricia Wester, director of Eurofins’ food safety systems and an integral member of the team. A long-time veteran of the industry, she has devoted her professional life to food safety. Wester’s division handles accredited certification audits for Eurofins, and she is well aware of the global need for more qualified, trained auditors and the lack of a cohesive training model for developing entry level audit personnel. As an alumna, she is also familiar with the college.
As the program developed, the three groups involved realized they could do more than just provide better trained laboratory staff or even auditors for the food industry. Food companies represented on the advisory council were advancing their quality goals well beyond the requirements necessary for compliance and recognized the importance of a solid understanding of food safety fundamentals and their implications.
Beyond the local food manufacturers, branded food companies were aggressively searching out and recruiting veteran industry professionals with the scientific food safety knowledge and experience necessary to develop comprehensive programs capable of meeting these new objectives. They too knew of the challenges inherent in identifying qualified personnel for their respective industries and offered their perspective.
Across the food industry, manufacturers, retailers, and even regulatory bodies are hampered by a shortage of qualified personnel. Indeed, in the absence of a true food safety degree program at any level, anywhere in the world, even an adequate definition of “qualified” is elusive.
All stakeholders in the food supply chain are faced with an increasing shortage of capable, career-minded personnel to implement the advanced food safety programs in manufacturing and have little time to develop the talent organically. “They needed personnel now, and the learning curve simply takes too long when the need is immediate,” said Steven R. Wallace, PhD, president of Florida State College at Jacksonville.
Under Dr. Wallace’s leadership, the college has created seven new bachelor’s degree programs in direct response to local industry needs, programs as diverse as critical care nursing, early childhood education, and supervision and management. Most recently, the college collaborated with the Jacksonville Aviation Authority to create an aircraft coating facility and program to support aircraft manufacturing and maintenance. “It was clear that Florida State College could take a leading role in fulfilling this need,” said Dr. Wallace.
The Right Partner
Eurofins quickly recognized that they had partnered with the right group to make this ambitious program a reality. “Florida State College has extensive experience providing comprehensive training programs for industry, and through the IFS and its advisory council, we are able to access many of the most experienced industry veterans,” said Michael Russell, PhD, CEO of the Eurofins U.S. Food Division. “All Eurofins’ laboratories strive to provide advanced technical capabilities, quality-driven testing services, and the best customer service available. We identified a need to increase the availability and depth of our technicians’ training, and the Florida State College program fits that need.”
“The Eurofins team being assembled at the Analytical Testing Center will bring a wide range of knowledge to this program, and students, supporters, and industry will all gain from it,” said Marc Scantlin, Eurofins vice president of human resources and organizational development and project lead. “This program has the right elements to give all industry sectors well-educated, qualified individuals and take food safety to the next level. We are just beginning.”
With this combined experience, the focus is now on developing the next step: creating a comprehensive program that could provide food safety education beyond the laboratory and the traditional core sciences of microbiology and chemistry. This would be a new food safety education model that would attract bright new talent by offering career-focused individuals an opportunity to learn both the science and business of producing safe food.
Now, scrutinizing the food industry closely, the group is identifying the developmental gaps and the drivers for the project’s next phase: The roles and qualifications of entry level food safety professionals need more definition, and increasing students’ interest in food safety education is key. As the lab at Florida State College was getting walls and windows, the project was split into phases. The goal of phase one, to provide vital analytical testing, was supplemented with the goals of phase two, to provide a well-rounded academic program and solid career path to future food safety professionals, along with creative guidance to the industry.
Scarcity of Curriculums
“There are an abundance of workshops, seminars, and courses geared towards HACCP [hazard analysis and critical control points] and food safety principles already available. However, there is a noticeable scarcity of comprehensive food safety curriculums. In fact, an actual degreed food safety program does not even exist today,” Wester noted.
The group was convinced that the IFS curriculum should cover not only the core required sciences for the biotechnology program, but should also include multiple subject areas from the food safety industry such as good manufacturing practices training and other practical skills needed by industry quality assurance and quality control personnel. The team focused on one objective, to grow the program by creating a true food safety professional with well-defined career paths in food production, laboratory science, auditing, and inspection.
To expand the program beyond an AS degree in biotechnology and better define qualifications for the many specific jobs involved in food protection, the group is looking to stakeholders in the value chain such as producers, other testing labs, students, government agencies, consultants, inspection agencies, and standard makers. In addition to the AS in biotechnology, other undergraduate programs, certificate programs, distance-learning programs, and subject-specific training programs could be added to enable existing industry personnel to upgrade their job skills. A degree or certificate from Florida State College’s IFS would be unique and would fill a massive gap in today’s food protection efforts.
In the U.S., food safety has become increasingly complex, making it necessary to create a system that bolsters food safety while taking into account the many stakeholders involved. The project team’s goals for phase two are to create a comprehensive program that supports all parties, provides the food industry with a sensible and viable shot at addressing the current gaps that exist in food protection, shortens learning curves, and provides a more robust food safety education platform. This platform will lead to outreach initiatives for existing personnel to increase their professional knowledge and even develop third party audit and inspection training to address the needs that exist in this area. As phase two progresses into a building designed to house the multiple disciplines required for the program, Eurofins, Florida State College, and the IFS continue to seek better, more inventive solutions to the challenges facing food producers.