The food system faces challenges on a global scale, including mitigating food waste, rising food supply chain and safety issues, and building the capacity to feed nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050. To ensure a more sustainable future, our next generation of leaders will need to work more collaboratively across the entire food system to drive impactful change.
This need is especially true for the next generation of food safety leaders, who can affect the health and well-being of millions by preventing contamination of our food supply. Foodborne illness outbreaks can produce devastating public health outcomes and have a sharp impact on the economy. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 48 million people—one in six Americans—contract a foodborne illness annually.1 On top of the health toll, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that foodborne illnesses cost more than $17.5 billion annually due to increased healthcare costs and decreased consumer confidence.2
New challenges to food safety will continue to emerge out of ongoing modifications in our food production and supply, environmental changes, enhanced detection methods, emerging strains of resistant bacteria, and evolving consumer preferences. Food contamination can occur at any point in the food system—during production, processing, distribution, and preparation. The need for food safety professionals to view the food system holistically to understand how decisions in one area impact another has never been greater.
Challenges of this magnitude can be tackled only by transforming the food system and the way we educate the people who lead it. The question is: How do we prepare future food system leaders to drive change and implement solutions effectively? The answer: By developing leaders who think beyond their current roles and understand the benefits of multi-stakeholder collaboration so that, together, we can navigate the complexities of the challenges. Organizations that commit to fostering and supporting the development of these collaborative skills in future leaders will be the ones that thrive in the global food system of the future.
Supporting training and career development goals is a simple yet effective strategy for driving employee interest, engagement, and retention. Yet to effectively develop the next generation of leaders, organizations need to take a step back to understand what workers look for in an employer and ensure their recruitment and development strategies align with the things employees value most.
What Does the Next Generation of Food System Leaders Want?
When we talk about developing the “next generation of food system leaders,” what does that mean? Who are the next generation, and what type of training and education support are they seeking from their employers?
The truth of the matter is that most employees will say the availability of and support for ongoing training and education opportunities are key criteria when choosing an employer—and this is especially true for millennial and Generation Z employees, who currently compose 46 percent of the full-time U.S. workforce.3
Adecco Group’s General Assembly recently conducted a survey of 2,000 millennial and Generation Z workers titled “Technology & the Future of Work: Next Gen Perspectives.” This survey set out, in part, to determine what role education and training play in an era where the pace of change is accelerating and the shelf life of skills continues to shrink as old skills quickly become obsolete.4 The survey found that across all age groups, career growth support is at the core of what workers value.
Workers of all ages ranked “commitment to supporting my professional development to improve in a current role” as the most important factor in determining whether to stay at a company. As for the type of support desired, workers were as interested in nondegree certificate programs as in traditional graduate programs.
With the oldest millennials now in their 40s, this generation is increasingly likely to serve in middle management or leadership positions and is likely to expect that their employers will support ongoing education. By helping employees build skills specific to their needs, organizations can play a critical role in both an employee’s career advancement and the performance of the organization as a whole. When companies invest in employees, the employees are more likely to feel valued, engaged, and motivated.
The organization can derive benefits from this, as well. When employees are at the forefront of evolving industry standards, organizations are better prepared to respond to changes and adapt to an increasingly competitive marketplace. If companies really want to be part of the solution in preparing future food safety professionals to grow in their careers, they need to invest in and support training and education opportunities or risk losing employees and falling behind in the competition for top talent.
Never Stop Learning
Joseph Scimeca, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at International Dairy Foods Association, spent his entire career in the food industry in the area of regulatory affairs and understands the importance of a continued focus on education. He notes that when you work as a regulatory affairs professional, you typically do not come out of school prepared with the exact skills needed to succeed on the job. When he graduated with a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology, Scimeca knew he was well prepared to work as a toxicologist; however, he was not necessarily well prepared to work as a regulatory professional.
“No one goes to college thinking they are going to be a regulatory professional—that’s not on anybody’s radar,” Scimeca says. “I wanted to be a scientist. After I gained some real-world experience, I recognized I was interested in expanding my skills. I became more aware of regulatory professionals and what they do. Eventually, I realized I had aptitude in understanding the scientific underpinnings of the regulatory industry and being able to apply it.”
From on-the-job training to more formal education, Scimeca still learns something new every day.
“In my current role, I’m focused on all aspects of the dairy industry,” he says. “As you go further into the depths of a particular commodity, there is certainly more complexity. There is always an opportunity to drill deeper to become an expert in a narrower field.”
However, Scimeca also advocates for understanding the bigger picture of the global food system. He learned firsthand the importance of broadening his perspective when he managed the labeling team for a previous employer.
“No product is more heavily regulated in terms of labeling than a food product,” says Scimeca. “The label is an important link between the company and the customer. To be effective in my position, I needed to expand my perspective. I needed to learn about supply chains and manufacturing. The way in which the product was produced impacted what you could say on the label. I needed to understand those complexities to do my job.”
Scimeca believes that people who do well in the global food system industry are those who are always eager to learn more and willing to put in the work. Many people who start out in the food safety field have science degrees (e.g., nutrition, microbiology, toxicology), which provides a great perspective on how to solve problems.
“Science provides an excellent base, but you also have to understand the language of your particular job,” Scimeca says. “I tell people they have to know how to understand the intricacies of regulations. It’s not just black-and-white. You have to know how to find, navigate, and function in the gray areas and that takes more targeted training.”
Scimeca has seen members of his team benefit from a variety of training and development options—everything from a short course on labeling terminology to completion of a full master’s program in food safety. In addition to the more tactical aspects of job training, Scimeca believes the development of leadership skills is key to success in the food safety industry.
“Leadership is a mindset—a way of thinking and behaving,” Scimeca says. “Leaders in this industry have to have a high-level view of the complexities of the food system and how the components are all interconnected.” Even within the industry, many think of the food system as a linear path, but it is not. It is much more complicated.
“For example, what a cow eats can be really important in how you present the product to the consumer,” Scimeca says. “What you can say to the consumer, how you market the product, and how you implement safety measures for that product can all relate back to what the cow eats. That’s not immediately obvious to people.”
Successful food system leaders have a grasp of how those components relate to one another. They are always growing, changing, and taking charge of their education.
“You are not ever going to be fully prepared for your next role,” says Scimeca. “Even if a new opportunity feels like it is outside of your comfort zone, go ahead and embrace it—and then figure out a plan for gaining the skills you need for success.”
Not a One-Size-Fits-All Approach
Ongoing training for food safety professionals is vital to maintaining the ongoing health and well-being of the world’s population. Many food safety training programs are focused on the technical information and specific details needed to perform a job. Often, when people start out in the food safety industry, they begin in a technical or task-based role. As they grow in their careers, they transition from tactical to more strategic roles. That is why a continuum of training and development opportunities to span the needs of food safety professionals is so important.
Exploring the Training Continuum
The need is growing for professionals with comprehensive food safety expertise in government, business, and academia. The typical food science master’s degree program takes approximately 2–3 years to complete and includes a core curriculum of multidisciplinary sciences, as well as food law components. A comprehensive program allows students to study a broad range of food safety science and legal/regulatory complexities, provides a deeper understanding of emerging technologies, and develops the leadership and critical thinking skills to solve emerging food safety problems. A master’s degree is an entry point for some positions and careers.
A graduate certificate is typically a lower-cost, shorter-term of graduate study in a specialized topic area. Programs often require just one or two semesters and between 12 and 18 credits. For example, the Integrated Food Systems Leadership Regent’s Certificate at the University of Minnesota focuses on an integrated food systems approach where working professionals learn how to proactively address the interdependencies of the entire food system—from seed and soil through farm to fork. The certificate course credits can often be transferred to satisfy requirements for a master’s degree, making it an ideal option for those who may wish to continue with their education. It is also an excellent option for working professionals seeking to gain knowledge in a targeted subject area or pursuing state or national licensing requirements. Skills gained from both a graduate degree and/or a graduate certificate often help students advance in their current positions or change career fields.
Six Sigma Certificate
Six Sigma is a set of tools and techniques designed to improve the quality of process outputs and minimize variability in business processes by seeking to identify and remove the causes of defects. Each Six Sigma project follows a defined sequence of steps (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) to achieve stable and predictable process results. In the food industry, which demands effective quality control measures, the Six Sigma system is especially popular. Even the smallest defects can lead to adverse impacts and critical issues. For food safety professionals managing complicated processes, complex supply chains, and extreme cost and time pressures, recognizing the importance of continuous improvement is pivotal to success.
Six Sigma certifications are awarded in belt levels: white, yellow, green, black, master black, and champion. Opportunities to complete Six Sigma certificates are available at a variety of colleges, and some businesses offer programs as part of their employee development options.
Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA) Certificate of Training
The FSPCA5 consists of industry, academic, and government stakeholders with the mission to develop curricula, training, and outreach programs to support compliance with the prevention-oriented standards of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The FSPCA’s portfolio of certificate training courses is offered as online programs and/or by FSPCA-trained lead instructors. Courses may run from a couple of hours to several days.
Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI) Training Courses
FPDI6 defends the safety and security of the food system by conducting research to protect against vulnerabilities in the food supply chain and to reduce the potential catastrophic effects on public health and the economy. An emeritus Homeland Security Center of Excellence, FDPI develops food defense curricula and exercises to train and educate current and future food defense responders. The institute focuses on reducing the potential for contamination at any point along the food supply chain and places a high priority on addressing potential threats to the food system that could damage public health or the economy. It offers a wide range of education initiatives across several disciplines, including supply chain resilience, information sharing, and risk analysis. The courses are typically 2–3 days in length and are a fairly low-cost training option. FPDI also offers mini-courses and customized training options.
Whether you are looking to advance your career, improve your skill set, train on a specific topic, or gain a core certification, there are a variety of training and educational opportunities available for food safety professionals. Although they vary in time commitment, cost, and ease of access, all fill a specific niche and serve a valuable purpose. There is no one-size-fits-all-approach; each person needs to determine the best fit for their goals and objectives.
A Nontraditional Education and Career Path
Angela Echols did not follow a traditional education or career path, and because of that, she believes she ended up exactly where she is meant to be. Echols began her career 22 years ago at Bay State Milling Company in Minnesota in an administrative role. After gaining experience across different departments within the company and taking advantage of opportunities to grow her skills, she is now the corporate food security and regulatory compliance manager.
“I am a big advocate of encouraging people to develop their knowledge and skills, as well as being a manager who provides employees with the support to do so,” Echols says. “I believe championing the development of your employees has to be part of every company’s philosophy and every manager’s leadership approach.”
Echols began her post–high school education journey by getting her associate’s degree to build a broad business education. As she entered the workforce and advanced in her career, she wanted to learn more, and her company supported her continuing education through a bachelor’s degree.
“I wanted to understand what the CEO and CFO were talking about, and I wanted to be able to apply what I was learning to my job,” Echols recalls. “It was nice to learn the concepts and then bring that back to the work I was doing each day. There was a direct correlation to what I learned in class and how I could apply those learnings to my current position.”
In the years that followed, the company began to focus on quality initiatives, and Echols was asked to join this work. She did not have experience in quality or compliance and pursued more education to expand her skills. After researching options, Echols enrolled in the Master of Science in Quality Assurance online degree program through California State University–Dominguez Hills. She expanded her education in both the technical and administrative foundations of the quality assurance field through blended studies in management, quality concepts, and statistical tools.
“When I was asked to move to a new department, I knew this would mean expanding my horizons in a whole different area,” Echols says. “It was exciting, but I also wanted to be prepared. The master’s degree program allowed me to develop new skills I needed like statistical quality control and experimental design. I recognized if I could expand my knowledge in these areas, it would allow me to have a greater impact at work. The program was challenging in the sense that there was minimal interaction with other students, but I was able to gain knowledge in new areas through guided independent learning.”
After completing her associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, Echols thought she was done.
“Each time I completed a degree, I would take a year or two off,” she says. “Then I would find I was bored and wanted to learn more.”
When Echols came across the Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) program at the University of Minnesota, she knew it was the perfect choice for the next step in her education journey because it would broaden her horizons in the food industry overall and expand her leadership skills. She had recently become a new manager and wanted to learn the skills she needed to excel in her new role.
“The IFSL program was an excellent experience for me,” Echols says. “From the interactivity and cohort groups to the teachers and mentors, it was an extremely rewarding development opportunity. The cohort really came together as a cohesive unit. We weren’t just muddling through a degree to get a degree; we all wanted to be there and learn from one another. I will have a lifelong bond with my fellow cohort members from having that experience together.”
Echols has no doubt that her participation in ongoing education and training has enhanced her career development. In addition to the more formal educational opportunities, Echols recommends taking advantage of industry training and conferences, on-the-job learning through colleagues, and free online webinars.
When asked for her advice to others who are deciding how to move forward with their own career training, she stresses the importance of staying true to your own goals and learning style.
“People learn in a variety of ways—different methods of learning, different experiences, and different opportunities—and they are all important and valuable,” Echols says. “There are so many options in front of you. What sparks your interest? What are you most passionate about? If you have the opportunity and the drive, I say go for it. Why not?”
Echols believes it is important to be willing to learn and change and to continually look for opportunities to develop. She encourages people to be curious and ask questions. “When you have confidence in what you do, it makes you want to learn even more,” she says.
An International Perspective
After working as a food safety certification manager for a nonprofit organization in Taiwan, one thing Janice Hsu realized was that she had found her passion in the global food safety industry. She believes discovering her passion is what drives her to continue exploring education and career development opportunities.
“I’m passionate about food safety, so I want to keep learning and growing in the field,” Hsu says. “I want to contribute to creating a system that supports better, safer food for the world. Knowing I can make a difference, that’s what guides me to keep learning.”
Hsu was born and raised in Taiwan and received her bachelor’s degree in food science from the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology. She then went on to earn a master’s degree in health policy at the University of Sydney in Australia. She is currently participating in the University of Minnesota’s IFSL online graduate certificate program to gain leadership skills, as well as a more comprehensive understanding of the entire food system.
“It’s so beneficial to obtain a broader perspective of the food system,” Hsu says. “Each component of the food chain is complex and interconnected. As I learn more about how what I do impacts other areas, it opens my mind to new ideas. Through my education, I’ve gained exposure to different views from other countries and that enables me to generate new innovations more quickly.”
Hsu appreciates her international educational experiences and embraces different styles of teaching.
“The cultures and teaching methods are quite different in Asia versus Western countries,” she says. “In Asia, professors often tell you what to do and you do it. In Western cultures, students are required to think more critically. You are encouraged to share your opinion and perspective. Experiencing different styles of teaching and new ways of learning has changed the way I think.”
With a variety of learning experiences, not only in formal educational programs but also through international training and conferences, what Hsu appreciates most are the relationships she has built with other students and colleagues.
“I’ve discovered learning alongside others has been the best experience for me,” says Hsu. “We respect one another along our shared journey. You aren’t just learning things from a textbook. You are having practical experiences and discussions with students facing similar challenges and those learnings can be brought to life through the work you do at your job.”
An Integrated Approach to Driving Impactful Change
We often tend to work, think, and tackle issues in silos, limiting our capacity to drive lasting change. For an industry as complex as the global food system, an integrated training curriculum that embraces a variety of tools—classroom training, experiential learning, on-the-job application of skills, and peer-to-peer learning—is essential to promoting a more effective and collaborative approach to solving today’s challenges.
By prioritizing opportunities to think beyond our own boundaries, capitalizing on chances to become more involved in areas outside our own expertise, and engaging in new ways to approach the wider and rapidly changing food system, we equip ourselves to think and act more holistically. Thinking more broadly and strategically about how we embrace training and education leads us closer to creating a more effective food system that advances food safety and leaves us better prepared for unexpected events.
For more information on this topic, please see the on-demand webinar from Food Safety Magazine, “Educating the Next Generation of Food System Leaders,” with Debra Freedman, Ph.D., and Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D., available for viewing through November 18, 2022 here.
- “Food Safety.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/.
- “Cost Estimates of Foodborne Illnesses.” Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/cost-estimates-of-foodborne-illnesses.aspx.
- O’Boyle, Ed. 2021. “4 Things Gen Z and Millennials Expect From Their Workplace.” Gallup Workplace. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/336275/things-gen-millennials-expect-workplace.aspx.
- Technology & the Future of Work: Next-Gen Perspectives. 2021. General Assembly. 22 March 2021. https://ga-core.s3.amazonaws.com/cms/files/files/000/005/289/original/TalentPathingWhitePaper_3.22.21.pdf.
- “FSPCA Home.” Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance, Illinois Institute of Technology, https://www.ifsh.iit.edu/fspca.
- “Protecting the Global Food Supply through Research, Education, and the Delivery of Innovative Solutions.” 2021. Food Protection and Defense Institute, University of Minnesota. https://foodprotection.umn.edu/.
Debra Freedman, Ph.D., is the Curriculum Director for the Integrated Food Systems Leadership program, Education Manager of the Food Protection and Defense Institute, and manages the Office of Online Learning for the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine.