Each year, 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Food safety is a major issue,” said Ranjith Ramanathan, an assistant professor who teaches food science courses in the Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Science. “Every day, we hear about foodborne outbreaks. The consumers are really worried about what to buy, what to do, what not to eat.”
Because of this growing need for food safety professionals, OSU has established one of the first undergraduate degree options focused on food safety, said Ravirajsinh Jadeja, assistant professor and food safety specialist at OSU.
“Students can come to OSU, major in food science with a food safety option, and graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree, qualified to get a job in the food safety area,” said Clint Rusk, head of the OSU Department of Animal Science.
OSU’s food safety option puts more emphasis on quality control versus microbiology like other schools, which makes the program unique, Ramanathan said.
“With this food safety option, we are training more students so they can help the industry,” Ramanathan said.
The push for the food safety option began with the Oklahoma food industry, Rusk said.
Through input from the Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center’s advisory board, OSU recognized the need to develop students specialized and trained in food safety, Rusk said.
“Support for the food safety option grew all the way up to President Burns Hargis,” Rusk said.
The department jumped on board, Rusk said, and began the interview process for the first faculty position within the food safety program. Jadeja started in January 2015.
“We were very impressed with Dr. Jadeja’s background and just as impressed with his personality,” Rusk said. “We felt he would interact well with students.”
Jadeja said he was interested in
coming to OSU for this program because he wanted a career where he could work with the industry and teach students.
“OSU has state-of-the-art facilities, a really good program and is already working closely with the industry,” Jadeja said.
Although the food safety option is less than a year old, the department is moving quickly and already has received approval for the curriculum, Rusk said.
The curriculum includes a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point course to go in-depth with HACCP training, which all processing plants require, said Deborah VanOverbeke, an animal science professor who teaches food science courses. Classes involving sanitation as well as other quality-control classes also are being developed in the department, VanOverbeke said.
“Companies have a shortage of people working in the sanitation crew,” Jadeja said. “That’s why they need properly trained and equipped people who can take care of the job. This sanitation course is going to help the students.”
Companies are required to document their processes to ensure the food they produce is safe, Rusk said, and those companies need people trained in this documenting process.
“We all want a safe food supply,” Rusk said. “When we go to lunch, we expect it to be safe. None of us want to get sick.”
Jadeja said the curriculum currently includes at least five new classes, two of which Jadeja taught in Fall 2015.
“The food safety option really puts into place people who have the background and exposure to auditing, food microbiology and quality-control systems, so they can hit the ground running in a production facility,” VanOverbeke said.
The career opportunities for this option range from production to processing systems to marketing for food retail or restaurants, VanOverbeke said. Since Oklahoma food companies came to OSU asking directly for students with these specific qualifications, they will look to OSU for employees graduating with this option, she said.
Jadeja said his position includes both teaching and extension, which gives him the opportunity to work closely with the Oklahoma food industry and take students with him when he goes on industry visits.
“Jadeja’s expected to leave campus, visit companies, and work with those companies,” Rusk said. “So, for the students to be able to go with the professor to visit the companies they will potentially work for, how many other majors get to do that?”
Jadeja said he taught a class for Fall 2015, Oklahoma Food Industry Experiences, in which students visited different companies statewide within the food production industry.
“If students have some exposure and some knowledge of the companies, it makes them
more capable of coming in and running from day one versus trying to learn the system
from the get-go,”
Rusk said numerous jobs will be available in the food industry, which makes the food safety option such an exciting opportunity for students.
“When you look at the food science major,” VanOverbeke said, “we’re always going to eat. It’s one of those majors where jobs aren’t going to come and go as the economy changes. Jobs are always going to be there.”
As the food science major continues to be promoted through the college, the food safety option will grow because of the various paths students can take that help set them apart from other students, VanOverbeke said.
“Students really need to know what the need is,” Ramanathan said. “People are not really aware of the exciting career opportunities. If we promote food science, especially food safety, then there are a lot of job opportunities.”
As the world’s population grows and more food is consumed, more companies will demand food safety graduates, Rusk said, and OSU is one of the places to come to pursue the food safety field. The food safety area is up-and-coming and offers great opportunities to help with food safety issues, he added.
“There will be opportunities in almost every state with this major in addition to other countries who will seek food safety experts,” Rusk said.