While it was once common to eat only locally harvested food, the food we consume today originates from all over the globe. In a single hamburger—made with items purchased at your local supermarket—you might consume beef from North America, lettuce from Mexico, tomatoes from New Zealand, spices from Australia, and preservatives from Europe.
Although this level of globalization in our food supply has many benefits, it also introduces new challenges and risks regarding food safety. Diseases and contaminants that once may have been contained now have the potential to spread across international borders and impact millions of more people.
Foodborne illness outbreaks have devastating effects on public health, resulting in chronic illnesses, long-term health consequences, and even 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. In our interconnected world, food safety is more important than ever.
Breaches in food safety don’t just affect public health; they also have a steep economic impact. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that foodborne illnesses cost more than $15.6 billion annually due to healthcare costs and decreased consumer confidence in food safety, which negatively impacts buying patterns.
In an effort to mitigate these risks and improve global health, consumer groups, industry stakeholders, and regulatory organizations—including the USDA and FDA—worked with President Barack Obama to pass the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which began implementation in early 2016. The FSMA calls for more comprehensive food safety programs and training in food preparation, service, handling, and equipment maintenance to improve the likelihood that the food on your plate is authentic and safe to eat.
The goal of this legislation, says Darin Detwiler, assistant dean and director of Northeastern’s Master of Science in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program, “is for organizations to take a more proactive approach to preventing illnesses and deaths. This will take much support in terms of funding, training, new state legislation, increased staffing, and more universal certification of staff and labs.”
In support of this global initiative, the demand for skilled food safety professionals is growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that food safety employment will rise eight percent by 2026, making this a fitting time to enter the field.
Along with a promising career outlook, read on to learn more about the top four reasons to consider a career in food safety.
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Reasons to Pursue a Career in Food Safety
1. The Opportunity to Make a Difference
A career in food safety gives you the opportunity to leave your mark not just on a company, but on the world. Food safety professionals impact the health and well-being of millions by preventing potentially deadly pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella, from contaminating our food supply.
Many food safety professionals feel a great sense of purpose knowing that their day-to-day decisions directly affect millions of consumers and help solve imminent global food problems.
“These types of jobs are critical to public health, food defense, and food security,” says food safety consultant Hisham Hissam. “Food safety is not just my job—it’s my lifetime passion.”
Detwiler agrees. For him, food safety is a personal mission:
Food safety is not just a job—it’s a mission. Whereas Clark Kent has a desk job, Superman has a larger mission. I’ve spoken with dozens of parents who have been impacted firsthand by failures in food safety, and they all wish someone had stepped up to stop food production or made sure the meat their child ate had been cooked to the right temperature. They wish someone had been that hero that could’ve saved their child’s life.
Careers in food safety offer you the chance to affect global change while performing meaningful, socially responsible work in an ever-changing environment.
2. A Dynamic Environment
No two days are exactly the same as a food safety professional. From inspecting products on a production line to recommending improvements to quality management systems, working in food safety can mean touring a factory floor and leading a boardroom meeting, all in one day.
Food safety professionals are also seeing more global opportunities in the field. Currently, 74 percent of regulatory workers have international responsibilities, and industry reports expect this to increase. International regulatory work is dynamic, as legislation varies significantly across borders, depending on a country’s risk tolerance, the economic impact of producing safer food, and level of sanitation. Many food safety professionals enjoy the challenge of synthesizing these complex, interconnected, and ever-changing regulations.
According to Detwiler, this level of change is the only constant when it comes to the future of food safety. Rapid technology developments are occurring in food safety and food authenticity, creating exciting new paths to explore. And as consumers’ preferences and buying behaviors continue to evolve, new food safety opportunities will emerge.
3. Career Flexibility
Along with the ever-changing regulatory environment, the need for food safety workers in each phase of the food supply chain gives professionals great flexibility in their career paths. Workers can find food safety jobs in agriculture, product development, manufacturing, labeling, regulatory approvals, marketing, and distribution. Pursuing a regulatory career in food safety allows you to hone in on your passions. Growers, food scientists, processors, packagers, quality assurance specialists, distributors, and even retail grocers are all part of this food safety chain.
Professionals in the field have the option to work in small facilities, mid-sized companies, or large, multinational corporations. Typical employers include food science companies, regulatory agencies, processing plants, manufacturing operations, retailers, research and academic institutions, biotech firms, and trade associations. When it comes to a career in food safety, employment options are abundant.
And in a time of significant change in food regulation, there are opportunities to apply your food safety knowledge to areas of personal interest, such as nutrition, sustainability, trade, environmental justice, human rights, education, rural and urban development, law, business, and marketing. Gaining food safety expertise allows you to shape and grow your career on your own terms.
4. Job Security
For prospective food safety workers, it’s comforting to know that while their career paths are flexible, the job market is stable. The industry has, and will always have, billions of consumers—all of whom need safe and nutritious food. The global food industry is currently a five trillion-dollar market and employs millions of people worldwide. By 2050, it’s expected that the global population will grow to 9.6 billion, putting increased pressure on the food industry to supply safe and authentic food to people across the globe, which will require a significant increase in skilled workers.
Additional drivers of future job growth and security include:
- Food safety innovation at every stage of the farm-to-fork lifecycle
- Increased globalization of food systems
- More rigorous food safety laws, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act
- Heightened public awareness of nutrition and food safety
- Increased focus on transparency along the food supply chain and the introduction of blockchain technology
Common Food Safety Careers
Some of the most common job titles for professionals in the food safety industry include:
1. Food Safety Specialist
Food safety specialists, also known as food inspectors or food science technicians, work to protect the public from foodborne illness by monitoring food safety and quality. These professionals oversee food preparation, processing, storage, packaging, and distribution processes to ensure they are in compliance with regulations.
Food safety specialists work in various environments such as food labs, offices, processing plants, and manufacturing facilities where they assist in developing food safety processes and evaluation methods. Average annual compensation for a food safety specialist is roughly $52,429 according to PayScale; however, salaries can increase to more than $70,000 for this role depending on location and experience.
2. Food Safety Manager/Quality Assurance Manager
Food safety managers primarily work in food production environments to ensure that all food items are properly prepared, stored, and packaged. These professionals design food safety processes in accordance with recognized standards at the local, federal, and global levels. As such, they also audit and evaluate the effectiveness of and compliance with these processes.
Those looking to pursue this career can expect competitive compensation. Glassdoor has reported that food safety and quality assurance managers earn an average annual salary of $98,393—well above the national average.
3. Compliance Officer
Compliance officers working in the food industry are charged with enforcing food safety policies by performing routine inspections or audits. Food safety compliance officers are often employed by government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, or by food production companies.
The primary role of professionals in this position is to ensure compliance with regulations and policies from the FDA and other governing bodies. Additionally, they identify issues within the operations of the business and strategically implement solutions. The average salary for compliance officers is about $67,607 per year.
Tips For Breaking Into Food Safety
If you want to pursue a career in food safety, there are steps you can take to better prepare yourself to break into the industry. First, it’s crucial to strengthen your understanding of food safety regulations, including how and why these regulations are created. Understanding the basics of food safety regulations will provide a strong foundation for the skills needed to be successful in this industry.
It is also beneficial to develop a global perspective in regards to food safety regulation and policies. Since we live in a world that is more interconnected than ever, it is vital for food safety professionals to have an understanding of the global landscape so that they can be prepared for the challenges facing the industry.
Additionally, aspiring food safety professionals should stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends by attending conferences, reading industry magazines, and listening to related podcasts. The development of new technologies is continuously changing the way we process, package, and deliver food; it’s imperative that food safety professionals stay abreast of these emerging trends so they can respond accordingly. For example, the introduction of blockchain to the food supply system has the potential to revolutionize the food safety industry by increasing transparency and reducing risk. Professionals well-versed in this new technology have a competitive advantage and will be able to meet the market’s demand for this expertise.
Another way to refine your skills is to earn an advanced degree, such as a Master’s in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries. While not required for all food safety positions, there is strong employer demand for candidates who hold master’s degrees in a related area of study. Completing a master’s degree in regulatory affairs can help you jumpstart your career in the food safety industry and give you a competitive edge when entering the job market.
Careers in food safety can be challenging, dynamic, and rewarding. Luckily for job seekers, the demand for skilled food safety professionals isn’t slowing down. If starting a career in food safety is the right path for you, consider the options available to help you break into the industry.
This article was originally published in January 2018. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.