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