Once upon a time, Americans prepared food in their own kitchens, often using ingredients grown in their own gardens. Today, we eat fish caught in Costa Rica, vegetables grown in Chile and juice pressed in China.
And that’s when we bother to cook at all. More than 20% of our meals are now prepared at a restaurant or in a commercial processing facility.
The more we rely on others to provide our food, the more we need food safety specialists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 76 million Americans contract a foodborne illness every year.
Food safety specialists help to ensure the quality and safety of our food supply. Most become experts in a specific aspect of food production or in a segment of the food industry, such as meat processing.
For food grown in the United States, food safety specialists enforce proper methods of seed selection, fertilization, pest control, harvesting, storage and transport. They make sure foods are properly labeled, kept at the right temperature and taken off the shelves once they expire. Import inspectors are charged with ensuring that food products imported into the United States meet the same safety standards.
For commercially prepared foods, food safety specialists monitor processing operations, inspect equipment and identify potential sources of contamination. Most foodborne illnesses come from bacteria, so cleanliness and temperature control are essential at every stage of production. Food safety specialists also inspect food service operators, such as restaurants and caterers, to enforce health and safety regulations.
Most food safety specialists are employed by government agencies as inspectors or work for a food producer helping to promote full compliance with food safety regulations.
Food safety specialists see a lot of things the rest of us would rather not know. This is not a career for anyone with a sensitive stomach.
Inspections can take food safety specialists into processing plants, onto farms and into other facilities that can be excessively hot, cold, humid, noisy and smelly. Inspectors may be required to wear protective equipment and may be on their feet much of the day, climbing stairs, standing, kneeling and walking on slippery, narrow, uneven or muddy surfaces.
The work can be fast-paced, with tight deadlines and multiple pressures. It can get confrontational as well, if you must close down a facility because of health violations.
Environmental health practitioners like food safety specialists typically earn a four-year college degree with a scientific major. Some states offer certification for environmental health practitioners who have a specified amount of work experience and pass an examination.
Acquiring a degree from an accredited environmental health degree program is highly recommended for individuals interested in entering the field of environmental health.
Accreditation helps ensure a well-prepared workforce, and indicates that an academic program has been found to have the curriculum, faculty, facilities and institutional support necessary to provide quality environmental health education. The National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council is the only accreditation body for environmental health degree programs.
Accreditation is important to employers as well, including the federal government. For example, only students from accredited programs are eligible to participate in the U.S. Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps Officer Student Extern Training Program.
Experience in the food preparation industry can help you qualify for an entry-level position as a food inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA food safety specialists must pass a written test and have either a four-year degree or job-related experience that involves ensuring compliance with proper food safety standards.
Because food safety specialists must work with many different types of people and report their findings, good written and communication skills are essential. It also helps to have acute senses and be highly observant.
In high school
- Take plenty of courses in math, life sciences, physical sciences and English/writing.
- Seek opportunities to volunteer with environmental protection or public health organizations or businesses.
- Work in the food service industry to become familiar with food safety regulations and compliance issues.
- Design a science fair project that addresses the issue of foodborne illness and proposes solutions to reduce that risk.
- Major in biology, chemistry, microbiology, environmental health or some other scientific area.
- Enroll in a summer program or internship that focuses on food safety.
- Find part-time work in the food service industry helping promote compliance with food safety standards.
The National Environmental Health Association offers certification as a registered environmental health specialist or registered sanitarian. According to the association, “credentialed individuals may find positions easier to obtain and may increase their earnings.”
Some food safety specialists go on to earn a Master’s of Public Health, with a focus on epidemiology, food safety, infectious diseases, environmental toxicology or health risk assessment.
- Association of Environmental Health Academic Programs
- Choose a Career in Environmental Health
- National Environmental Health Association
- National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council
- National Library of Medicine