Want a career in food? Food safety is a growing field and one where you can make a real difference. Take Barbara Kowalcyk. The tragedy that thrust Barbara into the food safety arena was chronicled in the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary, Food, Inc.
In 2001, her two-year-old son, Kevin died after eating tainted hamburger and since them Barbara has made it her job to save others from foodborne illness co-founding CFI to help America find science-based solutions to the food challenges of the 21st Century.
Barbara has provided scientific input to national and international government bodies, served on multiple national advisory committees, and received public recognition for her efforts to improve food safety.
Hear more of Barbara’s inspiring story LIVE on my SIRIUSXM show tomorrow (June 24) at 4p East/1p West SIRIUSXM 110. Read below for her advice on careers in food safety and how you can make a living making a difference!
- Is food safety a growing field? In general, we are facing a public health capacity crisis in the United States and globally – and, as a public health issue, food safety is no exception. Emerging infectious diseases and food contamination – as well as the sustainability of agriculture and the safety of our water – are growing and difficult challenges. In fact, most experts agree that zoonotic diseases – human diseases that originate in animals – will be the big health challenge for the 21st Century. Given the global nature of our food supply and our increasingly limited resources, it is clear that, going forward, we will need a more holistic and sustainable risk-based approach to food and food safety that focuses on prevention and integrates human, animal and environmental health. Unfortunately, we do not have enough trained people to effectively and efficiently develop and implement such a system. With the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, the workforce crisis will only get worse as governmental agencies and food producers across this country struggle to find qualified people to implement the new laws and regulations. So, yes, food safety is a growing field.
- What do you enjoy most about working in this area? I have always had a keen interest in public health. Before I became involved in food safety, I spent nearly 10 years working in clinical research as a biostatistician. During that time, I contributed significantly to identifying new treatment options for health issues that greatly impact people’s lives – most notably schizophrenia. Even though my interest in food safety was born out of my family’s tragedy, I am still driven mainly by my interest in public health and knowing that every day I am making a difference. As CEO of a national non-profit, I wear many different hats – strategic planner, scientist, researcher, educator, advocate, policy expert, writer, counselor, fundraiser, bookkeeper and travel agent. While I enjoy the diversity of these tasks, what I enjoy most is translating science into action – whether I am talking about the importance of using a meat thermometer or by meeting with government officials to discuss the development of new public policies – so that the food on our plates is safer for us to eat.
- What’s most challenging about it? I am one of those people who loves challenges, so what I enjoy the most is probably the most challenging. I have a master’s degree in statistics, and I am currently finishing up my doctorate in Environmental Health with a specialization in Molecular Epidemiology. I am a data person. While I understand the scientific process, I am not a bench scientist – but a lot of food safety is rooted in bench science. So, the challenge for me is translating that bench science into terms that non-scientists can understand and that motivates them to change their attitudes and behaviors towards food safety. Scientists and data people are, by nature, not the best storytellers, but that’s what is needed in order to translate science into action. Of course, the business-side of running a non-profit is also very challenging. I always have to be thinking two steps ahead about what we are going to do and how we are going to fund it – not an easy task in the current economic climate!
- How would you recommend someone who wanted a career change get started in this field? There are several different career paths that someone could pursue within food safety – working in government, industry, academia and NGO’s. Most will require an advanced training in public health, microbiology or food science. To figure out which path is best for you, I would recommend speaking with food safety professionals, taking a class in one of those areas and reading scientific journals as well as more popular literature on the subject. There are several programs that are specifically designed for working people who want to pursue a career in food safety. The University of Minnesota School of Public Health is recognized as one of the leaders in training public health professionals for careers in food safety. Every May/June, they offer a three-week Summer Public Health Institute (http://www.sph.umn.edu/ce/institute/) which is specifically designed for working professionals. Students can take just a day of classes or, by taking online classes and attending two Summer Public Health Institutes, earn a master’s of public health through University of Minnesota’s Executive Program in Public Health Practice. The Summer Public Health Institute offers a number of excellent courses in food safety from different perspectives and would provide insights as to which career path might be best for you. Similarly, Michigan State University offers an online program where students can earn a Certificate or Masters of Science in Food Safety (http://www.online.foodsafety.msu.edu/).
Many thanks to Barbara for sharing her advice and making it her mission to inform and educate about the dangers of foodborne illness. What an inspiring example of a person who is "being the change they want to see in the world." To find out more and support her cause visit http://www.foodborneillness.org/.
If you have questions for Barbara or want to get advice on your own career dilemma, call into my show at 866-675-6675 – Making a Living with Maggie, Fridays 4p East/1pm West SiriusXM 110.