Focus on Food Safety: How do you know if someone is skilled for a food safety job?
By Amy ProulxFood Safety Editor pick education
Late spring is a great time for academicians because our newly graduated students are eagerly joining the workforce. Company leaders know this is the time to look for new talent. They reach out to professors like me for reference checks.
Without fail, every year I get the same message from companies, “How do I know this recent graduate is ready for a job in food safety and HACCP work?”
In the early 2000s, when I was in university, HACCP-based management systems were just being initiated. It was not uncommon back then for a student with a master’s degree in food science to have never taken a course in food safety management. They would take a short course, and suddenly be in charge of food safety in a company.
Short courses are important, but they’re not perfect models for competency development. They are very important for knowledge transfer. Being competent and having a mastery of a skill takes time, repetition, progression of complexity, mentorship, feedback and evaluation. That said, I strongly encourage people to take as many short courses as they can afford.
Short courses rely on people to apply the newly learned skills in the workplace for the element of time and repetition to take place. These programs also rely on continuing mentorship for feedback and on-the-job evaluation. Mentorships may not be available in small companies with a lean staff.
There’s also an academic route for food safety training. Many post-secondary schools now include HACCP training courses in their food science curriculum. We’re also seeing more schools with post-grad and micro-credential programs. These are good moves. Students now pick up skills and context, albeit under a different timeframe. The challenge here is that many employers view academic credentials as a lesser form of training than a short course even if the former’s program length is longer than the latter.
Often, I get calls employers who aren’t sure about hiring a student applicant because they lack a certificate from a specific food safety-related organization. These types of calls raises a lot of questions about competency development. Some short courses only give a letter of participation, as competency evaluation was not a part of the program. So, how do you know when someone is competent in food safety?
Section 75 of SFCR states people “must have the competencies and qualifications that are necessary to carry out their duties.”
In section 220.127.116.11 of the SQF Code 9 Food Manufacturing, the primary and substitute SQF practitioner shall (paraphrased) be employed onsite, have responsibilities within establishment’s RACI framework for the SQF system, have completed a HACCP course, be competent to implement and maintain the HACCP plan and have an understanding of the SQF code for implementation and maintenance.
In BRC’s Code 8 Clause 2.1.1 (paraphrased), the HACCP food safety plan shall be developed and managed by a multi-disciplinary team including quality assurance, technical management, production operations, engineering and other relevant functions. The team leader shall have an in-depth knowledge of HACCP principles and be able to demonstrate competence, experience and training. If local regulations require specific training, this must be in place. The team members shall have specific knowledge of HACCP and relevant knowledge of products, processes and associated hazards. In the event of the site not having the appropriate in-house knowledge, external expertise may be used, but day-to-day management of the food safety system shall be company responsibility.
All HACCP-based food safety systems require a team-based approach. The team delivers decision-making, scientific evaluation and accountability for the program, with senior management of the company taking final responsibility.
If you’re an employer looking for a worker with HACCP skills, ask for certificates, but also ask for student work portfolio or example assignments that would demonstrate competency. Also make sure to design behaviour-based interviews that allow a new graduate to demonstrate competency.
Competency comes from a team adopting a continuous improvement stance. All members of the team must continue to learn and upskill, as well as provide constant feedback and constructive improvements on the HACCP system.
Good luck to our food studies graduates, the class of 2022! We’re cheering for you!
Amy Proulx is professor and academic program co-ordinator for the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology programs at Niagara College, Ont. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Food in Canada.
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