Food safety training institute launched

by Staff
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BATTLE CREEK, MICH. — Training for state and local food inspectors on a coordinated and career-spanning basis is virtually non-existent. But the National Center for Food Protection, Battle Creek, Mich., is on a mission to change the situation through the International Food Protection Training Institute, an initiative aimed at training food safety professionals at the beginning, middle and leadership levels.

The National Center for Food Protection (N.C.F.P.) was formed this year through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The national center is intended to be a "global food protection resource development and collaboration network" that will focus on technology and education outreach, said Stephen Benoit, president and chief operating officer of the N.C.F.P.

"The institute is the first and in many respects the centerpiece of that initiative and its focus is on delivering career-spanning certified state and local food protection professionals," he said.

The institute already has trained 218 food inspectors from 28 states since July, according to Mr. Benoit. A million-dollar appropriation from the federal government will allow the institute to train another 1,000 food safety professionals in 2010, he added. The institute is working on a longer-term relationship with the Food and Drug Administration to train upwards of 3,000 to 5,000 food safety professionals per year.

The institute currently uses classrooms at Western Michigan University.

Classes may span one to four days, and the training combines lectures and hands-on learning, according to Mr. Benoit. For example, a class was recently held for food inspectors with at least one to two years’ experience. The professionals also had some online course instruction.

"They came for a three-and-a-half day course," said Mr. Benoit. "It was in a classroom setting, hands-on application. So, there was conveyance of information but also the opportunity to actually sample product and practice handling procedures and chain of evidence protocols and things like that."

The institute also provides training for food safety trainers.

"We’re now training the trainers so the institute can get more outreach into the setting," Mr. Benoit said. "We've got a blend of those sorts of activities."

Mr. Benoit said most of the available training focuses on the entry-level positions.

"But as you move into the journey level and technical specialist levels and definitely at the leadership levels there's less and less training or professional development opportunities available," he said. "There's no mandatory training, and the quality of the training that does exist, there’s no standard by and large that that training must achieve.

"Most importantly, there is no money for state and local regulators to get them to that training even if it all did exist," he added.

A dearth of funding at the state and local levels is impacting the country's ability to develop a national food safety system that has not only capacity but equivalency in terms of the competency of inspectors nationwide.

Part of developing a uniform training program for state and local food safety professionals involves defining the competencies necessary to be an effective food inspector with the curriculum that is available, and then finding what curriculum needs to be updated or developed.

Currently, there are 20 to 25 existing courses at the I.F.P.T.I. Mr. Benoit said there are probably another 50 that could be developed.

In the future, the institute will offer a non-degree certificate-based program. Mr. Benoit said he envisions a mix of subject matter experts who are industry practitioners and F.D.A. staff doing instruction along with a handful of permanent staff.

The institute relies upon and is pursuing partnerships with public and private entities such as the Association of Food and Drug Officials. The institute is working with the F.D.A. in making available some of the agency's existing courses.

University Centers of Excellence are also part of the institute's partnership network. So far, Michigan State, Cornell, Louisiana State University, Iowa State University are among the centers of excellence. Mr. Benoit said he anticipates adding more partners from Minnesota, Georgia and California.

"We’re looking at longer-term more sustainable relationships with federal agencies," he said. "The goal here is to enhance the creation of an integrated food safety system in the United States." FSM

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