Food Safety and Quality: Soon in the Hands of “Gen Z”

Columns - Consumer Perspectives

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On October 21, 2019, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas and his team met with industry leaders to discuss what the agency refers to as a New Era of Smarter Food Safety. One of the first panelists to talk that day was MK Wagner & Associates President Mary Wagner who framed her vision for this new era as one dominated by “Generation Z”: born between 1990 and 2010. They currently represent 25% of the population but will make up 40% of all American consumers in 2020.

As a professor of food policy, I teach graduate students who were born after the landmark 1993 Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak. In the era since then, the food industry has embraced a food safety culture — described by some as a change in farm-to-fork beliefs, practices, and values behind combatting foodborne illness. Food safety regulations are still being modernized while new technologies offer promises for enhanced traceability and transparency.

During this same time, however, consumers have been continuously bombarded with evidence of the seemingly uninterrupted cycle of crisis-and-reform. We witness the growing variety of contaminated foods, new ways in which foods become contaminated, unpredicted causes for failures in food safety mitigation, and the addition of thousands of families each year who will live with a chair forever empty at their dinner tables.

Unlike most of us in the food industry or related fields, the Generation Z workforce grew up with words and phrases such as “E.coli,” “foodborne pathogen,” “multi-state outbreak,” and “recall” as part of their social media feeds, Instagram posts, viral videos, and even memes. This, alone, does not take the place of experience and a broader understanding of what goes on behind the Herculean efforts to keep consumers safe.

What the industry needs, what executives are literally asking for, is a food safety and quality leadership workforce that is better prepared for the many changes and challenges anticipated in the near future.

Experiential learning (such as through internships and co-ops) is so valuable to students and new graduates. This type of hands-on experience provides individuals with a direct opportunity to master skills, gain keen insights, and explore a career in an experience embedded within the industry. As participants in experiential learning programs, students can focus on skill development and training for that first job or build leadership skills for their next act. With multiple internship placements, it is possible to understand how departments and individual roles work together within a business.

What is important to remember is that experiential learning not only benefits the student but also the business. The University of Guelph’s “Planning For Tomorrow” report (https://bit.ly/2qMTx2J) found that 74% of employers stated that their most successful hires have been new graduates who completed an industry internship or co-op. That learning opportunity provided relevant, hands-on work experience that translates to productive and valuable employees.

In addition, prior work experience assists with role expectations and ultimately employee retention. Of interest, 94% of employers in Toronto’s food and beverage sector employ fewer than 100 people. Smaller businesses may not have a human resources unit that’s communicating with new hires about their performance or career trajectory — feedback that Millennials and Gen Z workers value most. Experiential learning, networking, and mentoring are proven pathways that directly benefit businesses with new employee performance and retention.

Students at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies engage in a wide variety of experiential learning opportunities. Students in the Regulatory Affairs of Food graduate program have participated in such activities with major nationwide retailers, large food brands, and even FDA. Some of these students have gone on to present at conferences and contribute to industry publications. Most importantly, these graduates identified their experiential learning accomplishments as impactful on their careers.

FoodGrads (https://foodgrads.com) is a leader in connecting grads, educators, and industry professionals through an interactive platform. On its website, students can create a free profile and browse entry level jobs, co-ops, and internships on a designated job board. Through strategic partnerships with organizations like Restaurants Canada and Careers in Food, FoodGrads supports the food processing and foodservice industries in Canada and across North America.

There is so much work to do to improve the food system, regardless of the entry point; there are so many career options and we need bright, socially conscious young people to choose this industry. Experiential learning for the next generation of food professionals can make a significant impact on all generations of consumers.