Issue Date: February 20, 2012
Keeping Food Safe
Media reports of food-safety lapses—from low-level detection of the fungicide carbendazim in orange juice last month to adulteration of milk with melamine in 2008—have heightened consumer concerns about the integrity of the products they are tossing into their grocery carts.
Eager to allay those fears and protect their image, major food and beverage manufacturers have adopted a more aggressive attitude toward quality control and are stepping up already rigorous efforts to test their products.
At the same time, they are working to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January 2011 and is in the process of being funded and implemented. A sweeping reform of food-safety regulation, FSMA aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. It gives the Food & Drug Administration new authority to require third-party certification or other assurances that imported foods—which are a fast-growing part of the U.S. food supply—comply with U.S. standards (C&EN, Jan. 3, 2011, page 20).
“With the passing of the law will come increased inspections of imported food and food-processing facilities in the U.S., which will require increased sampling of food and increased testing,” says Vincent Paez, director of food safety at Waltham, Mass.-based instrumentation company Thermo Fisher Scientific. Consequently, there will be a moderate increase in demand for analytical chemists and other scientists qualified to carry out or support testing of food, beverages, and ingredients, he observes. Although the number of new food-safety jobs may be limited, they represent a growing career niche for chemists, who have recently faced poor job prospects in the pharmaceutical and other more cyclical industries.
Valued at $3.4 billion in 2010, the U.S. food-safety testing market is projected to grow an average of 6.6% per year to reach $4.7 billion in 2015, according to market research firm BCC Research. To support such growth, more analytical chemists are likely to be hired within regulatory authorities, private testing labs, analytical instrumentation companies, accrediting bodies, and other organizations that support food safety.
Food and beverage producers too are likely to bring more analytical chemists into the ranks. “To fulfill the increasing needs of our customers and comply with new regulations, the hiring of additional analytical chemists in manufacturing of foods will mostly likely increase,” says Lisa W. Webber, head of quality management and regulatory affairs in North America for BASF. The company’s human nutrition business produces vitamins, carotenoids, functional ingredients, food additives, and process aids for the food, beverage, and supplement markets.
“Analytical chemists play an important role in food safety,” Webber says. They test incoming raw materials, intermediates, and finished products to ensure that they meet specifications and “are safe to release for distribution to our customers,” she adds. “Valid analytical results are essential for making informed decisions that impact public health.”
Eager to protect valuable product formulas and recipes, most large food and beverage companies have long done much of their quality control, chemical, and microbiological testing in-house.
However, in recent years many food and beverage producers have opted to cut costs by outsourcing more of that work to trusted contract testing labs, notes John Budin, corporate director of chemistry for Silliker, an international network of accredited food-testing and consulting laboratories.
Aiming to meet growing customer demand, Silliker has begun construction of a 71,000-sq-ft testing laboratory near Chicago in Crete, Ill., that will be one of the largest food-testing laboratories in the U.S. when it is completed in mid-2012. Initially, the facility will employ more than 200 scientists, including B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. chemists, and administrative staff “who are committed to meeting industry codes and accreditation standards for food-testing operations,” Budin says. Additional staff will be hired later to support expansion activities.
More analytical chemists may also be needed to work as assessors for accrediting bodies such as the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA). Groups like these award ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, the international standard under the International Organization for Standardization, which outlines general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories.
Accreditation groups are working to keep up with demand from food-testing labs that want to become ISO/IEC 17025 accredited to meet customer demands and to “meet requirements for accredited testing in support of activities related to imported foods” under FSMA, says Roger M. Brauninger, biosafety program manager at A2LA.
Consequently, A2LA is now hiring people who have a strong background in analytical chemistry and have been trained in quality management systems, Brauninger says.
Analytical chemists at all degree levels are also moving into roles at analytical instrumentation companies, many of which are positioning themselves to provide the tools and services needed to meet increased food-testing demands. “Food safety is most definitely a growth area for our company,” says Jim Willis, senior director of global market development at instrumentation firm Waters. “The outlook for that part of our business is very positive right now.
“Even in the face of the global financial slowdown, Waters continued to add analytical chemists to its applications groups throughout 2011 to carry out method development in support of customer demands,” Willis says. Currently, pesticides and veterinary drugs are among the contaminants that are of greatest interest to food companies and testing and government labs, he adds.
Waters has set up applications and method development groups at its Milford, Mass., headquarters and its other U.S. offices, as well as in locations where it operates subsidiaries worldwide. “Analytical chemists are located in all these sites and provide services that are key to supporting our customers,” Willis says.
In another move to expand its participation in the food-safety market, Waters is providing funding and state-of-the-art instrumentation for the International Food Safety Training Laboratory, which is dedicated to teaching analytical methods to scientists from around the world to help them comply with U.S. and other countries’ food-safety regulations. The lab, which opened late last year in College Park, Md., is part of the Joint Institute for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), a partnership between FDA and the University of Maryland (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2011, page 22). Two Ph.D. analytical chemists and a Ph.D. microbiologist were hired to run the new lab; classes are taught by academic and government experts.
At the facility, food-safety scientists from the U.S. and other countries can get hands-on lab experience performing methods for food sample preparation and analysis, according to Elizabeth M. Calvey, an FDA chemist and deputy associate director of JIFSAN.
Waters is now in discussions with regulators outside the U.S. to establish training labs in each of the major geographies that export food into the U.S., Willis says.
Another instrumentation company that is aggressively expanding into the fast-growing food-testing market is Thermo Fisher. “We’ve hired many chemists to support the food-safety industry over the last several years,” Paez says. For the most part, new hires have focused on the company’s chromatography and mass spectrometry product lines, providing customer support and helping with the complexities of food sample preparation, he says.
The company recently also hired five Ph.D. analytical chemists with food-testing expertise to staff its Food Safety Response Center (FSRC) in Dreieich, Germany, which it opened in April 2010 to rapidly develop validated analytical methods in response to food crises worldwide (C&EN, May 10, 2010, page 28). Just after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, for example, the center’s scientists developed a method to quickly test affected seafood for contamination with oil and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
When the center is not responding to a crisis, its chemists focus on new methods for detecting dangerous chemical contaminants in food, such as pesticides and mycotoxins. For example, in her role as a food-safety chemist at FSRC, Ebru Ates develops methods for extraction and “cleans” samples—to eliminate chemicals that might interfere with an instrument’s detection capability—before completing analyses of various compounds in foods, she says. “I also enjoy knowing more details about the foods I eat,” she adds.
“Analyzing food is very interesting, but it is also extremely complex,” says Thermo Fisher’s Paez. “For example, the chemical complexity of an apple is daunting,” compared with other nonfood samples encountered in the field of analytical chemistry.
When working in food chemistry, scientists must understand all the different interactions between water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and an endless number of possible contaminants, he adds. “So people who go into this kind of work have to be ready for a chemical challenge.
“You can’t just take fish or an apple or a walnut and put it into a machine to analyze it for a contaminant,” he says. Instead, it’s necessary to follow a multitude of steps—crushing or grinding a piece of food, mixing it with a solvent, extracting the suspected contaminant, centrifuging the material, and filtering it “before you get a sample to place in a little glass vial to put into an instrument such as a gas chromatograph,” he says.
“And the process varies greatly depending on the targeted contaminant and the food in question,” Paez adds.
Not surprisingly, Thermo Fisher prefers to hire chemists who have experience working with a variety of foods. “If a job candidate has experience with pesticides in fruit and has also analyzed for steroids in meat, that person would be very interesting to me as a hiring manager,” Paez says.
Still, companies involved in food safety say that they also hire analytical chemists who have gained related experience outside of the food industry. BASF, for example, favors candidates who have previous experience in a current Good Manufacturing Practices-regulated environment, such as the pharmaceutical industry, Webber says. To fill food-safety positions, BASF generally hires B.S.-level chemists, or those with undergraduate degrees in food science or a related field, who are adept in good documentation practices and who can demonstrate great laboratory and problem-solving skills, she adds.
Making the effort to develop the skills and expertise needed to work in the food-safety arena may be a smart career move for chemists, who have faced a dearth of job prospects in recent years. “As the food industry becomes more global and as customer, consumer, and regulatory requirements continue to increase, there will be increasing focus on food safety in the future,” BASF’s Webber says. “In order for manufacturers to meet all these needs, they most likely will require additional employees including analytical chemists.”
Waters’ Willis concurs. “This isn’t a market that is going to decrease in importance,” he says. “Every time you have a food-safety scare, consumer demand for improved testing and improved product quality goes up. Testing is only going to increase as the population demands cleaner and less hazardous food.” ◾
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