Think about what you ate for breakfast today. Do you know where was it originally packaged? Processed? Where the individual ingredients came from? Does it matter?
Dr. Darin Detwiler, assistant dean and director of Northeastern’s Master of Science in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program, says these questions absolutely matter and are critical for people to ask, because knowing where and how your food is handled can actually be a matter of life and death. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that, each year, 48 million people—one in six Americans—contract a foodborne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Luckily, Detwiler says the food safety industry has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. Since the Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak in 1993—which sickened over 700 people and resulted in 171 hospitalizations and four deaths—the FDA and other health authorities have continued to make positive strides by passing legislation to improve the safety, quality, and authenticity of our global food supply.
Since food today is sourced, packaged, and distributed around the world, it is difficult for health authorities to ensure global food safety. Thus, we, as consumers, now rely on the invaluable expertise of food safety specialists, who help uphold these evolving regulations, to ensure our health and safety on a daily basis. As the demand for these professionals grows, find out what they do, how much they earn, and how to break into the discipline.
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What Do Food Safety Specialists Do?
Food safety specialists—who are also referred to as food inspectors, food science technicians, or food safety managers—help protect the public from foodborne illnesses by monitoring food safety and quality. They ensure food products are prepared, stored, packaged, and distributed in a safe manner, and that related equipment and processing procedures also comply with quality regulations. They are responsible for making sure these products and processes meet safety standards imposed not only by the organizational, but also local, state, federal, and global health authorities.
They can assist in the design and development of food safety regulations, processes, and risk assessments for an organization, and are often responsible for training employees on food safety best practices. They often split their time between offices, processing plants, manufacturing facilities, and food labs, leading inspections of facilities to ensure proper procedures are being followed, including maintenance, cleaning, and effective record keeping. Most food safety professionals work for food production companies, such as Dawn Foods, Tyson, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, or for government and health agencies.
Detwiler says working in food safety can be highly fulfilling. As a food safety specialist, professionals have the opportunity to make a difference and affect change in public health on a global level. When you and your family sit down to eat at a restaurant or pick up cold cuts from your local deli, it’s these experts you can thank for making sure your food is free from harmful and potentially deadly pathogens.
What’s the Market Outlook for Food Safety Specialists?
Detwiler says with the field’s growing demand, it’s a great time for professionals to break into the food safety industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is expected to grow at a rate of 27 percent over the next decade—far greater than the nine percent projected growth rate across all other professions. In 2016 alone, more than 21 million people were employed in food safety, fraud, and security jobs, which accounted for over 11 percent of total U.S. employment.
Industry professionals can also expect a high level of job security, given the increase in federal focus on food safety. For example, with the implementation of the 2010 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2016, thousands of domestic and international facilities must conduct additional safety and quality audits, directly increasing the demand for food safety auditors across the globe and ensuring additional work for years to come.
Additionally, there are currently more than 650,000 restaurants and grocery stores in the U.S. alone, all of which employ food safety professionals in some capacity. With the global population expected to swell to 9.6 billion by 2050, the number of stores is likely to grow, requiring a significant increase in skilled food safety professionals.
How Much Do Food Safety Professionals Earn?
According to PayScale.com, the median salary for mid-career food safety specialists is $50,329. By advancing to the role of food safety manager, professionals can expect to earn an average salary of $68,112 per year.
This number can vary, however, according to metro area and years of relevant experience, with total pay reaching upwards of $130,000. Here’s a look at the median salaries that mid-career food safety managers across the country can expect to make, based on reports from PayScale.com:
- Boston, Massachusetts: $76,302
- New York, New York: $74,947
- Chicago, Illinois: $94,446
- San Francisco, California: $68,784
- Los Angeles, California: $70,601
- Seattle, Washington: $67,461
- Toronto, Canada: $64,306
- Atlanta, Georgia: $70,000
- Charlotte, North Carolina: $67,461
How Do I Become a Food Safety Specialist?
Detwiler suggests several ways to prepare yourself for a career in food safety and secure a competitive advantage.
Sharpen Your Skills
For those interested in advancing their food safety careers, Detwiler says there are specific skills and qualities that can improve your chances of success in the industry. These include:
- Strong written and verbal communication skills: As a food safety specialist, you’ll be required to interpret complex regulations, make concise arguments, and provide clear recommendations to help an organization achieve and maintain compliance.
- Ability to work with diverse stakeholders: Food safety professionals work cross-functionally with many groups, including business executives, manufacturing plant employees, regulatory organizations, and health authorities who have different goals and priorities.
- A strong sense of responsibility and ethics: The work of food safety specialists directly contributes to the health and well-being of people across the globe. The most successful individuals in the field have an innate drive to uphold this responsibility.
- Cultural agility and a global worldview: Working in a global industry, you’ll regularly interact with a variety of stakeholders from different cultural backgrounds. Improving your cultural awareness and broadening your perspectives will aid in effective cross-cultural communication.
- A deep understanding of the regulatory landscape and food safety policy: Rules and regulations are constantly evolving. In order to help an organization achieve compliance, it’s critical to have a broad and comprehensive understanding of the regulatory environment.
Improve Your Regulatory Knowledge
Another way to sharpen your skills is to earn an advanced degree or certificate in the field of regulatory affairs. While not required for all food safety positions, there is a strong employer demand for compliance professionals with master’s degrees. According to the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society, 99 percent of regulatory professionals have bachelor’s degrees, but more than 69 percent have also pursued postgraduate studies. Earning a certificate or degree in the field will enhance your food safety knowledge and sharpen the skills you need to help you stay ahead of the competition.
Expand Your Network
Detwiler suggests joining professional organizations to take advantage of their training, tools, and resources, and to network and develop relationships with key industry leaders. Some popular professional associations include:
- International Food Authenticity Assurance Organization
- International Association for Food Protection
- Stop Foodborne Illness
- American Council for Food Safety and Quality
Never Stop Learning
Detwiler recommends that, along with being an active participant in these associations, aspiring food safety professionals should attend conferences and subscribe to trade publications to stay up-to-date on important industry topics and emerging trends. Some of his favorite conferences and publications include:
- Food Safety Summit
- Conference for Food Protection
- National Food Policy Conference
- FDA Events
- Global Food Safety Conference