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Revamped food safety course creates certified scholars

Kim Bukowski
Randy Worobo
Martin Wiedmann

A team of faculty and extension experts have cooked up a new recipe for a long-running Food Science course, one instructors and students say is opening eyes and doors to employment.

The course, FDSC 3960 Food Safety Assurance, has been offered every two years. It is a requirement for undergraduates and a staple for some graduate students. Still, Food Science professor Randy Worobo, one of three instructors in the freshly overhauled course, said he and colleagues began to wonder if there was more that could be done to prepare students for a dynamic and demanding industry.

Working with future co-instructor Martin Wiedmann, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety, they began to re-envision the course as practical preparation for real-world food safety and food quality work. Three years ago, when Wiedmann lured veteran industry operator and certified inspector Kim Bukowski to Cornell to be an extension support specialist, she said they shared a vision of a revamped class in which students studied the science but also explored lessons from the field in which they were getting prepared to work.

“The class was changed to focus on industry-required skills,” Worobo said. “We knew it was going to be a great advantage to the students.”

That big advantage, all three instructors said, comes from two acronyms – HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) and SQF (Safe Quality Food). Worobo, whose research and extension appointment includes training industry operators in New York as certified HACCP instructors, offers students the opportunity to earn HACCP certification through the course. Likewise, Bukowski brings her SQF industry instruction to the classroom through a first-in-the-U.S. partnership between a university and the Safe Quality Food Institute.

Walking away from the course with HACCP and SQF certification, as well knowledge gained from traditional food science coursework and a series of hands-on mock inspection “audits” at the new Stocking Hall Dairy Plant, puts Cornell students far ahead of their peers in the eyes of industry scouts.

“To our knowledge, no one in the continental U.S. is offering both certifications for undergraduate students,” said Bukowski, who conducts six SQF audits in the U.S. each year. “Having these students come out already certified, it’s really valuable to them.”

“It’s a huge advantage,” Worobo added. “Huge.”

Gathered in a conference room in Stocking Hall days ahead of Monday morning’s final exam, many among the first crop of students to complete the course testified to that point.

“If they had to decide between two candidates for a position, if you already have this certification, that gives you an advantage,” said Vanessa Moncayo, who is set to graduate this weekend with a master’s in professional studies in the field of food science and technology before returning to work in her native Ecuador. “This class has been eye opening for me.”

Fellow MPS student and soon-to-be graduate Amrutha Anandaraman said she’s already working for a food-industry consultant. She said word about the course has spread and she’s getting new job interviews and calls every day.

“The thing about this course, there’s a lot of practical knowledge,” Anandaraman said. “We know exactly what we have to do when we go out there.”

Cornell students are more attractive to employers, and the food industry in New York and beyond will be fed a steady supply of certified workers. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will offer the new course every spring, and the instructors are working on a revised course that will allow them to expand enrollment as high as 75 students per class while keeping group and hands-on elements intact.

The final advantage, Worobo and Bukowski said, belongs to them.

“These kids are brilliant,” Bukowski said. “They have open minds and ask very different questions. They’ve really opened my eyes, too.”

John Carberry is managing editor of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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