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The Future of the Professional Food Safety Workforce

Opinion

The safety of our food supply is dependent on a core group of professionals at the federal, state and local levels of government, as well as professionals working in the food industry. Ironically, despite its importance, we have incomplete knowledge about the food safety workforce in the United States. In fact, although studies are supposedly ongoing, we do not even know how many people work as food safety professionals.

Perhaps we should start by defining a “food safety professional.” This is difficult in itself, because food safety is multidisciplinary, and many different professions work under the job category of food safety. Most food safety professionals – but certainly not all of them – work under a broader category of the public health workforce. The principal federal agency responsible for assessing the public health work force is the Bureau of Health Professions in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In its report published in 2000, the Bureau does not list a specific job category for food safety. Instead, it uses an expanded version the Standard Occupational Codes (SOC) established by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Food safety is included under the SOC of Environmental Scientist and Specialist. This SOC also includes professionals working in a number of environmental health fields such as vector control, hazardous materials, industrial hygiene, air pollution, water pollution, and other specialties.

According to the Bureau’s 2000 report, only 19,431 environmental health professionals and 915 environmental technicians were identified in federal, state and territorial and local agencies. One likely reason for this low count is that many environmental health activities are located in agencies separate from public health agencies, for example, departments of agriculture. Of course, as mentioned previously, not all environmental health professionals work in food safety.

Furthermore, many professionals work part time in food safety and have other duties in environmental health. Additionally, the above numbers do not include other public health professionals that may have duties in food safety, such as public health nurses, nutritionists, food scientists, microbiologists or infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, toxicologists, and veterinarians. The numbers also do not include academicians working as food safety consultants or government extension agents, or private industry employees.

Earlier this year, another report, sponsored in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), was released on enumeration of the public health workforce. Although a variety of sources were used to derive the estimates, a SOC or occupational title was not specifically identified for food safety. According to BLS estimates in the 2012 report, which used a composite classification, the numbers of environmental health workers were distributed as follows: 17,540 workers in federal agencies; 37,970 in state agencies and 32,930 in local agencies. But these figures cast a wider net in that they include SOCs such as environmental engineers and environmental protection specialists. Again, however, these figures do not include other professions working in food safety or food safety professionals employed by industry and consulting firms.

Another important aspect of a professional workforce is its competence. The definition of professional competence varies among organizations, but generally competence refers to the ability to function, or the capability to function, in a given job situation. In recent years, the competence of some food safety inspectors and auditors has been questioned. This stems from highly publicized foodborne disease outbreaks where the responsible companies had received satisfactory scores on their inspections and/or audits. Still, despite these highly publicized cases, the competence of a food safety workforce is difficult to assess as a whole. There are few formal surveys, statistics, or measures of competence on our food safety workforce.

Among the provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed in 2011 are mandates to “improve” the training of food safety officials (Section 209) and to establish accreditation of third-party auditors (Section 307). The implication of these provisions is that the current food safety workforce needs additional training to enhance its competence. While unflattering to those of us who work in food safety, few of us will disagree that additional training is desirable. But we need to look beyond training and examine other characteristics of the food safety workforce.

A good starting place is with job task analyses. This is challenging, because our food supply is more complex than ever, requiring a greater number and diversity of food safety specialists. Two organizations currently conducting job task analyses are the International Food Protection Training Institute (IFPTI) and the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA). These highly respected organizations have a vested interest in the training and/or certification of food safety professionals. Although leadership and direction in these endeavors is being provided by federal and state officials responsible for food safety, most of the public is uninformed about such activities.

Training alone is not sufficient to enhance professional competence of the food safety workforce. As accomplished professionals will attest, formal education and experience are important aspects of professional competence. Education is different from training, because education provides the framework for theoretical thinking and deductive reasoning. Training, on the other hand, encompasses knowledge and procedures necessary to perform particular job tasks. Many students and workers entering the food safety profession lack sufficient coursework in the sciences to perform problem solving and to exercise independent judgment, which are important expectations of competent professionals.

To properly prepare for a professional career in food safety, students must start with a minimum foundation of coursework in biology (especially microbiology), chemistry, physics and mathematics. With this foundation, the student is better prepared to understand the topics covered in professional-level food safety courses. In addition, coursework in the environmental health sciences is very helpful, because food safety problems frequently originate from environmental problems. Subjects such as epidemiology, pest control, water quality, solid and liquid waste disposal and basic toxicology are all relevant to food safety.

As for experience, this is acquired from actual practice – usually by working under the direction of a mentor or a more seasoned professional. Career paths help budding professionals with attaining the necessary depth and breadth of experience. Career paths also provide opportunities for advancement and incentives such as salary increases and benefits. Without career paths and opportunities for advancement, many promising individuals will leave the profession, and new students will not enter the profession. Unfortunately, career paths in food safety (and many specialties in environmental health) are often poorly defined or nonexistent. Furthermore, as pointed out by John Guzewich in a previous article, budget crises in governments have resulted in reduced salaries and benefits, and many experienced staffers are leaving for retirement or higher paying jobs. This is a hindrance to providing the experience necessary for professional development and competence of the workforce.

We must start planning for the next generation of food safety professionals. The complexity of and potential threats to our food supply demand it. Along with the issues of workforce enumeration, career paths and salaries, we must also establish minimum educational standards for entry to the food safety profession. There are many universities and colleges that offer coursework in food safety with various degree majors, but only a few colleges offer specialized degrees in food safety. And it should be obvious that a few institutions cannot provide all the necessary education and training for tens of thousands of future food safety professionals. A minimum set of uniform educational requirements should be established for students entering the food safety profession (as opposed to food safety technicians). A possible approach to achieving this goal is to institute a nationally-recognized credential in professional food safety, one which also specifies the minimum educational and experience requirements for candidacy. To be effective, this credential must be recognized by the states as well as the federal government.

© Food Safety News
  • Kuen Lee

    I agree with author’s thought on food safety training, but he doesn’t provide a answer. I am a retiree who performed many food safety and quality audit on ingredient suppliers and food manufacturers for a big food company. Yes, the schools can provide the basic sciences (microbiology, food chemistry, etc) but the actual audit skill can only be taught by the professionals who actually performed these audits. I read some FDA’s plant inspection reports but even these report are not satisfactory. The inspectors didn’t receive a good and practical audit training. I assume there are many retired food safety professionals. Why not use these groups for the initial plant plant audits required by FSMA after a brief training by the FDA and use them as a teacher for future food safety auditors.. You don’t have to pay too much for these retirees who ,most of them, usually have their financial means already. This is the best economical and practical way of implementing the new food safety law, FSMA.

  • Ted

    This article misses the point entirely. All of the geeky sci-ency personalities enumerated here are superfluous to the true health of the public, they are expendable.
    The truly indispensable heroes of all things food and safety are the small but scrappy legion of intrepid anti-science anti-industry anti-agriculture foodie activists. These hyper-emotional dreamers, screamers and phobics tirelessly nanny, nag and scold us…for our own good, of course…and to pump their swollen egos…and to sell their overpriced boutique snacks.
    They dramatically separate us from the imagined perils of pink slime, they protect us from ourselves (and soda pop servings larger than 16 oz) and they spare no expense ($2.3 million, so far) to bludgeon us with senseless sophomoric ordinances like California’s prop 37.
    They waste no precious time or patience upon rigorous factual knowledge — superficial fears, beliefs and hyperbole are their cherished stock in trade. Spontaneity is their strength — they conjure some of their finest nonsense as they are charging headlong into the fog of their unilateral war against our food system. Whatever the prevailing foodie notion-du-jour, they are convinced they and they alone believe best…and we must all conform…unconditionally. They are the chosen ones assigned the thankless task of forging rigid autocratic regimentation from the untidy market chaos that is so hideously permissive of perilous independent decision-making.
    No need to seek out and enumerate or study these intrepid heroes — they will hunt you down and impose themselves upon your life, instead. “Don’t explain to us, we will dictate to you” is their proud credo. Such welcome bravado in these uncertain times! They alone are the very future of public health and food safety in America! Huzzah!!

  • Tim Kelley

    Good article – the U.S. probably still has the safest food supply on Earth, but we can always do better.
    Tim Kelley, PhD and Professor, Environmental Health Sciences Program, East Carolina University and Editor-in-Chief “Environmental Health Insights” (http://www.la-press.com/environmental-health-insights-journal-j110)

  • Minkpuppy

    Thank you so much for this article. Food safety encompasses so many different things that the average layperson just isn’t aware of, allowing them to pass judgement on food safety workers without really knowing all that our jobs entail.
    Uniform educational requirements are a must as we go forward. I know a lot of coworkers that complain about being passed over for promotions due to lack of educational coursework in microbiology, toxicology etc but it’s becoming more and more necessary to have that background. If we lack a basic understanding of these things and can’t properly explain to a company why certain measures need to be taken, then we are failing as food safety professionals. “Because the regulations say so” is not an answer.

  • RB

    I have worked with plenty of well-educated people that still enforce “because the regulations say so.” Just because you are educated and you have taken the required coursework does not mean you are going to take a practical and educated approach to food safety and food science. The regulations are out-dated and in some cases are not based on good science.
    I came to food safety from a non-traditional science background. I have not had any formal microbiology training but have a degree in the physical sciences. I am very good at my job and I see many around me that are traditionally educated with Environmental Health degrees that do not even know the basics of food borne illness incubation times/infection doses. How do you assess risk in a restaurant unless you understand the contaminants?
    Our work (in regulation and inspection) involves a lot of gray area. More than advanced sciences, we need complex and critical thinkers that can assess risk and make judgments from that risk. In addition, those critical thinkers need to have the basics of interpersonal skills in order to communicate with industry to make an impact. Most people are not critical thinkers, and asking questions will get you into trouble within most regulatory agencies.
    Overall though, I found when looking for employment that if you pigeon hole yourself with a complex food safety education, you will find a hard time finding a job without an education beyond a bachelor’s degree. You can no longer have a specialized background to work in most PH jurisdictions. At the local level, I juggle food, pools, institutions, private water systems, private sewage disposal…the list can keep going depending on the jurisdiction. Specialized education comes on the job and people develop passions from there. We do need well educated leaders and trainers, I just think that the definition is not quite as narrow as you have defined.

  • A well rounded education in the sciences does not prepare you to make critical decisions about product safety without experience. These judgments are made based on risk analysis of the product in question. An education is not going to prepare you to do the critical thinking in produce, canning, nuts, fish-whatever- unless you understand how those processes relate to safety both to hazards and controls. Unfortunately this is the approach of many auditors who can fill out a check list but don’t understand the difference between auditing and validation.

  • Husna Aijaz

    There is a difference in the level of knowledge on Food Safety among all the listed professionals in the article. A person with a food science background will evalaute a food safety scenario in a different light than a nutritionist or even a Registered Sanitarian. It is wrong to combine these categories of professionals in the same bracket!
    (MS Food Science)

  • Joanie

    Ah the TEDiousness of having nothing to contribute by way of honest discourse –Ted-the-Troll’s the name: disinformation’s the game. Sad, actually.

  • Minkpuppy

    Work experience and training doesn’t always make you a good inspector either. I know plenty of that are just plain jerks no matter what training they get or how much counseling they get from their superiors. Either a person knows how to talk to a plant or they don’t. You can explain how to approach the plant until you’re blue in the face but the hard-headed ones will still go out and do their worst, literally. I’ve personally seen years of hard work getting a plant in shape and developing a good work relationship with them go down the tubes the minute a new IIC walked in. It’s the person at fault and that person gets all the same training as everyone else.
    As a meat inspector, I get asked “why” all the time. If I didn’t have my microbiology and toxicology background, I wouldn’t be able to explain “why”. A lot of plant FS managers really don’t know themselves and don’t take the time to find out.
    I have many coworkers that don’t have that training beyond a really quick overview in our required training courses (which is a joke and quickly forgotten). The rest of the training focuses on how we’re supposed to enforce the regs and make regulatory decisions (aka critical thinking). When a certain number of trainees at these courses treat it like a 2-3 week party instead of business as usual, what do you think happens? The Agency saw this also and totally scrapped the programs they had in place. Now a good chunk of field inspector training is on CD or online and not nearly as effective as working in group projects and live scenarios.
    I agree that a ton of the regs are antiquated and need to be scrapped. I also think it’s ridiculous to get hung up on simple paperwork errors like circling “AM or PM” after the time on a check when it’s painfully obvious that it can only be one or the other because there’s only one shift (yes, I’ve actually seen documented noncompliances of this). How does that affect food safety? It aggravates the heck out of me to be told to document that. There’s much more egregious paperwork problems we need to be looking at. Are they doing all their checks at the frequency stated and is the person doing the check initialing/signing it? Are they documenting them at the time the check is done (irrespective of circling AM or PM)? Are they falsifying the paperwork (a little harder to prove)?
    Critical thinking will tell you one missing initial isn’t a problem, it’s being human. If they fail to initial any checks at all, there’s a problem. That kind of critical thinking seems to be missing with upper level FSIS–we must document all no matter how trivial and unrelated it is to actual food safety. Some of us work with the plants to head off problems before they get written up but others are still stuck in the “by the book” thinking. I used to tell a former co-worker that it doesn’t do any good to memorize the regs if you don’t know how to interpret them. We are told to use the notices and directives to interpret the regs but you wouldn’t believe how many folks I run across that don’t know the directives or haven’t read them in spite of the repeated hammering we get about them.
    I used to be passionate but meat safety and started to go back to grad school in food safety but now I’m just fed up. Too many bad policy decisons based on knee-jerk reactions and driven by various political agendas instead of solid science and data. Refusal to update and remove regulations based on real threats and risks. Failure to communicate with consumers in a way that doesn’t come across like all PH officials think consumers are too stupid to think for themselves and don’t have a right to know about what they’re eating.
    Maybe I’m just getting too old for this crap.

  • PLK

    True, education does not guarantee critical thinking, but it does provide the building blocks for critical thinking. Without the requisite knowledge, it is difficult to cultivate critical thinking and problem solving, such as risk analysis, at a professional level. Experience (supervised with a career path) and “proper” training help in developing critical thinking, but as Minkpuppy suggested, it still comes down to the individual’s aptitude (and motivation, personality, etc.). This is when individual employee competency (i.e., comparing actual performance against standards) is important.
    Certainly, some high achievers and self-learners can be successful without the requisite coursework, but when we’re talking about 40,000+ food safety workers, we need to look at the bigger picture too. That’s why we need to better characterize the workforce before rushing to judgment about its competence. This includes delineating individual specialties and their roles in the food supply. Obviously, the level of knowledge in certain subjects will be different among the specialties.
    BTW, I agree that some workers with degrees in environmental health don’t even know the basics. If you look at their transcripts, you’ll probably understand why. Many students graduate with a degree in environmental health without taking a single course in food safety or microbiology.

  • husna

    The author should submit this article to the local newspapers around the country as it does a very good job of explaining the need for more food safety professionals.
    Then, perhaps the “foodies” screaming hoarse may attempt some “science based courses” before providing their analysis on food safety topics.

  • Jem

    Re: the comment on “foodies” needing some “science based courses” before providing their analysis on food safety topics” — I’m sure the Big Food Corporations would love exactly that.
    Then they could trot out their “experts” and indentured scientists to “prove’ that all these industrial production and processing inputs are Good For You — so your uninformed opinions don’t count…
    Wait — that’s what they’re doing Already.

  • Ruby

    Jem is so, so right….righteous even….as usual — You know, ’cause we don’t need no stinkin’ science. Don’t need no facts, neither. All we need is more of that good Mercola koolaid spiked with NOFA’s silly anti-agriculture platitudes. Just dreamin’ and droolin’, that’s all we need, sure ’nuff. Well pipe dreams and a giant steaming heap of that good organic dung. Don’t need nothin’ more ‘n that, gonna’ get by just fine with uninformed opinions goosed up with NOFA misinformation — sure ’nuff!

  • husna

    Jem and Ruby— I am sorry that you felt offended by my comment. It was not meant to be taken in a wrong way.Think about the logical reasoning behind my comment.When people who are passionate about food (foodies)work on making policy changes, they are working long and hard, but don’t see much changes implemented.
    In real-life, its either the professional educated person or a working individual in the respective field who is taken seriously before measures are implemented.
    The “foodies” who are already passionate about food can make excellent food safety people that our country has projected a need for. Once they have these science based courses under their belt, they will change their entire perspective of why food is produced the way it is, and perhaps work towards encouraging a positive change, one that maybe viewed in a different light.

  • I have carefully read your work. I appreciate the attempt to introduce for managing risks and complexity.