Q&A with young food safety professionals working in the field
Food Safety Strategies was recently able to talk to three young food safety professionals who are currently working in the field about their experiences as a young professional in the industry.
The three young professionals include:
- Ashley Miller, Mesa County Public Health (Grand Junction, CO)
- Lola Oyedokun, Van Drunen Farms Inc.
- Lilia Rivera, QDOBA Mexican Eats
Food Safety Strategies: Tell us a bit about your job and what it involves.
Ashley Miller: I am the consumer protection program manager at Mesa County Public Health, a local health agency in Grand Junction, CO. I serve a population of about 150k residents and we are the largest county on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies. I lead a team of 4 Environmental Health Specialists. The main goal of my team and I is to prevent illness from spreading by way of food, water, pools and body art facilities. We do this by providing routine inspections in which each inspector educates the facility just as much as they regulate it. We also provide ongoing routine water quality testing in our certified lab and frequent trainings/outreach to the community. A major responsibility of the team is to respond and investigate outbreaks to help first stop the spread and then identifying the source and provide future mitigation steps. The recent COVID-19 outbreak is a great example of this! Each day in this role challenges me both mentally and emotionally and I am grateful for that. I know my team’s daily efforts directly impacts the health of our community and that to me is the biggest reward of working in public health!
Lola Oyedokun: I work as the senior quality manager at Van Drunen Farms Incorporation, Momence, Illinois. A global, growing and vibrant ingredient and nutritional supplement supplier to the world's best companies.
My terms of reference include:
- Leading the quality initiatives and programs, including, food safety, GMP, and customer audits.
- Developing and executing food safety and quality programs, including internal and multidisciplinary audits, GMP, EMP (Environmental Monitoring Program), Customer complaints and KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators).
- Overseeing the efficient implementation of food safety plans, food defense plan, risk mitigation, quality standards, and programs to ensure conformance to regulatory, customer and BRC requirements
- Implementing and strictly enforcing policies and procedures, mitigating risks and participating in crisis management initiatives
- Presenting solutions and recommendations and initiating corrective action to effectively resolving deficiencies.
- Providing influential leadership, coaching, and mentorship to a team of 5 quality employees and facilitating training programs to maximize their potentials; Delegating assignments and leading staff evaluations.
- Collaborating with cross functional groups, including production, scheduling, sales, engineering, corporate quality to develop corrective action plans for out-of-specification microbial results.
Lilia Rivera: I am the food safety and quality assurance supplier manager for QDOBA Mexican Eats. It is my responsibility to manage quality and food safety for all existing products and suppliers. In addition to product and supplier management, I also manage restaurant complaints on quality of products, and I support our Procurement and Culinary team for new supplier onboarding and product commercialization.
FSS: What challenges have you faced working in the field, being a young professional?
AM: My biggest challenge is being a young professional who early on in my career was offered a seat at the “table.” Yet I felt like I didn’t belong at the “table” because I lacked the experience and knowledge of everyone else around me. So, I job-hopped like many other millennials. I took roles to gain the “resume experience” and learned as much as I could as quickly as I could. I made mistakes. I lost sight of what made me happy. I got distracted by money and titles. I moved across the country three times. I made many lifelong friendships. However, every job taught me invaluable lessons about not only the industry but about myself. (I do not regret “job-hopping,” as it allowed me to have experience in food safety across the supply chain. I started working in the kitchen at Taco Bell, to managing a quality lab team in a dairy plant at HEB, to running recalls at Sysco, to being a food safety subject matter expert at the National Restaurant Association, to now leading a team of Environmental Health Specialists for a local public health agency.)
Now 10 years after graduating college and six roles later, I finally realize that I do not need to know everything and I will not always have all the answers…and that is okay, I still belong at the “table”! (That self-realization has removed a huge barrier in both my personal and professional life.) Instead of trying to know as much as a coworker who has been in the field way longer than me, I have spent the last few years working on building my delegation skills, being more of an active listener and not always having to have the last word, having conversations with coworkers that don’t always revolve around work and truly being vulnerable and asking for help or advice. The experience I am looking for has and will come.
LO: The challenges I have faced so far as a young professional includes:
- Food safety positions require long hours and overtime, dedication, and paying attention to details
- Learning to stand alone during implementation of new food safety and quality policies.
- Earlier in my career, it was challenging to communicate to management why products are retained and decisions to dump products are often challenged.
- Being Reactive vs being proactive; ensuring continuous improvement versus daily "firefighting"
- Talent Development and keeping up with regulatory and customer requirements.
- Growth (maximizing opportunities)
- Unforgettable learning from going through class III recall, market withdrawal, and working in Meat and Poultry, alongside USDA inspectors.
- Overall resistance to change, especially from operations department and this improved after watching a webinar on how to handle negotiations.
- As a manager, developing and training team members and working with cross functional team members to meet regulatory and customer requirements are often challenging.
LR: I joined the food safety field through the produce industry 10 years ago and have grown in the food industry. I have held managerial and director positions from a very young age. As a young professional I took over a director position after an older male had left the company, and although I was more qualified than my predecessor, I was paid 30-40 percent less. I have also been offered a manager role instead of the director role I applied for and the director role was awarded to an older male with less experience. It has been my experience that the industry places more consideration for upper management positions to men vs. women and even less to young women.
FSS: What is your background and how did you decide you wanted to work in food safety?
AM: I have a B.S. from the University of Florida and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of South Florida. I have experience in food safety across the food supply chain (see https://www.linkedin.com/in/acmiller908/)
I started at UF as a pre-pharmacy major but then switched to food science when I realized that it was the same pre-reqs, but over 4 years and not two. I have a distinct memory of sitting in my food govt regulations class [realizing] that I wanted to regulate the food industry because to me it was the way I could have the greatest impact on protecting public health. Everyone has to eat, and I felt that if I could work to make sure that food is safe than I could save more lives than a doctor could! Food safety has been such a rewarding career thus far and I am beyond excited to get to spend another 30 years participating in the evolution of the science.
LO: After high school, I gained admission into the University of Agriculture, Nigeria (West Africa) where I earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in Food Science & Technology in 2003. I also became a member of the Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technologies before relocating to the States where I got my MBA in Business Leadership/Business Management from the Florida International University in 2014.
Prior to this, as a high school student in Nigeria - West Africa, my career goal was to become a medical doctor but unfortunately, I didn’t pass the entrance examination, MCAT, at first attempt. As a result, I picked the second option of food science and never looked back since then. In 2004, after graduating with Food Science and technology degree, my first job in the United States was as a food safety technician, where I collected E. coli samples, conducted out of specifications investigations and followed the truck to the dumpster, which enhanced my passion for food safety and ensuring that no adulterated product entered into commerce. Over the years, my passion for food safety has increased with pains of going through class III recall, market withdrawals, and working in meat and poultry, alongside USDA inspectors.
LR: I graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in public health. Once graduated, I helped my father prepare his fresh fruit processing facility for a food safety audit and realized how fascinating it was to build and maintain such a crucial department. From helping with one audit, I decided to stay, built a pathogen testing lab within the facility and worked towards continued improvement. I implemented a Corporate Social Responsibility program, created a nonprofit organization for the betterment of the community where the facility is located and worked on an extended shelf-life program that increased the fresh-cut mango shelf-life from 12 days to 18-21 days. Throughout my career I have always pushed myself to get as much education as possible. I got certified as a lead auditor for SQF, FSSC 22000, Global G.A.P, EFI, and attended Listeria workshops and anything else I could find. 10 years later, I am now working on the other side of the supply chain, managing suppliers at QDOBA. I look forward to seeing what the next 10 years have for me.