Innovating Food - A Career in Food Science
The food manufacturing business in Malaysia is a multi-billion ringgit industry driven by the ever-changing needs of consumers and producers alike. Dr Nik Ismail Nik Daud, President of the Malaysian Institute of Food Technology (MIFT) answers questions about how food science and technology spearheads this growing industry.
What is Food Science and technology?
Food science and technology is the study of food and the application of science into the management, processing, engineering, distribution and storage of food, and ensures that the final products are beneficial and fit for consumption throughout the pipeline. The field is a relatively new discipline which began as a specialisation internationally in the 1960s and started in Malaysia 30 years ago.
What Do Food Technologists Do?
Food technologists are everywhere. They are in the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry, as well as manufacturing plants, the food service sector, academia, research institutes such as the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), the Fisheries Research Institute (FRI) and food marketing departments in multinational conglomerates.
The job responsibilities vary from one position to another. Generally, these responsibilities range from new product development, food processing, quality control and research to training, developing food quality and safety systems, inspection and auditing of food premises, management and marketing.
Your dress code and working hours will depend on your work and environment. For example, food technologists working in a lab or factory will definitely have to don protective clothing in sensitive production areas, while those who work in an office environment may dress in ordinary office wear.
What Academic Qualifications Does One Need to Become a Food Technologist?
Job opportunities are available for those with qualifications starting from certificate level. However, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree to advance in your career to a managerial position. Thus, it is good to start out in your career with at least undergraduate degree qualifications in food science and technology.
What Qualities or Characteristics Should a Food Technologist Possess?
Working in a food factory, a food technologist will be involved in the production of food according to predetermined specifications. All food products leaving the factory must comply with all relevant regulatory requirements of the country where they are produced and to which countries the goods are to be exported. Central to these requirements is that all food produced must be safe to consume.
When you look at what happened in China over the melamine issue, that was the work of unethical food scientists possibly working under the instructions of unethical companies. As well as causing you to lose your job and tainting your reputation, slip-ups or ethics breaches can easily cost many lives or have potentially very damaging effects to people’s wellbeing. Thus food scientists and technologists should always abide by ethics.
What is the Career Progression Like?
Entry-level positions are at executive or supervisor levels in production, quality assurance, consulting, marketing and sales. Alternative career routes include academia and working in various government agencies involved in the formulation of food laws, enforcement, inspection and monitoring of every step of the food supply chain from the farm to the point when food is finally consumed.
While there is a great need for food technologists in Malaysia, at the moment, job opportunities may be somewhat limited due to lack of awareness by the industry about the contribution of food technologists to the development of food businesses. In the manufacturing sector, opportunities are limited to medium to large companies because small companies do not yet see the need to hire food technologists or researchers.
Nevertheless, opportunities abound in the food service sector. Big franchises and successful restaurants hire food technologists to handle the logistics related to food from sourcing, pricing, quality and safety control, food handling and transportation. Taking into account big franchises such as McDonald’s to national mamak restaurant chains (such as Pelita), there are an estimated 200,000 food service premises employing more than 2.2 million people across the country.
How Much Does a Food Technologist Earn?
Generally, the starting salary for fresh graduates is RM1,800 - RM2,500 per month. Experienced food technologists in managerial positions can earn RM5,000 upwards.
Specialised Areas of Work in Food Technology
- Food additives
- Flavours and flavourings
- Food biotechnology
- Food engineering
- Food laws and regulations
- Food marketing
- Food processing
- Operations management
- Quality and safety assurance.
What Are the Perks and Challenges That Come with the Job?
Right now, consumers are demanding food that is convenient, nutritious, has potential health benefits such as enhanced immunity and disease prevention, and food that provides a unique experience when consumed. Hence job opportunities will definitely increase as consumer becomes more educated and more demanding about the food they buy.
The main challenge is meeting demand and guaranteeing food safety in a global society. Due to an increase in international trade, it can be hard to trace where our food comes from or monitor potential hazards that may contaminate it along the way. We are also faced with depleting resources to produce food for the world – less land, fewer natural resources, population explosion, economic volatility, global warming and pollution etc.
In developing countries, the level of food wastage is estimated to be 30%. The figure can be even higher in undeveloped areas where poverty is rampant and infrastructure is poor. Thus it is crucial for food technologists to be on the lookout for new sources of food, to reduce wastage and maintain energy efficiency during production.
Any Advice for Students Who Aspire for a Career in Food Technology?
Make sure you have a strong background in the sciences and mathematics as you will be applying those concepts on a daily basis. Get involved in extra-curricular activities early on to get a head start. Whether you want to be a scientist or a business professional, soft skills such as communication and leadership skills are a must.
He holds a bachelor's degree in agriculture science, a Master's degree in food science and a PhD is food science.Dr Nik Ismail has more than 30 years of experience in the field of food science and technology.
This article first appeared in doctorjob's coursesNOW! Health & Sciences 2010.