With the help of Praveen Yerramsetti, an Oklahoma State University food science doctoral student, Head Country Inc. in Ponca City, Oklahoma, earned an AA rating on its first food safety audit in 2016, which is the highest possible rating for this type of audit.
"When you get to that level of food safety, you have to live it, eat it, breathe it on a constant basis," said Paul Schatte, vice president of Head Country. "Your eyes and ears have to be open to every aspect of what a food manufacturer does to produce a safe product, and Praveen has that knowledge base."
Yerramsetti gained this knowledge base by working with faculty and staff from OSU's Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center to develop model food safety procedures and support to assist Oklahoma food companies.
"FAPC has been instrumental for Head Country, just a real gem when it comes to the food safety concept for Oklahoma," Schatte said. "As a food manufacturer, if you don't move to the next level of food safety, you're going to find it difficult to do business with large retailers. Head Country and other food manufacturers in Oklahoma that have received food safety assistance from FAPC and have gone through some high-level auditing are ahead of the game."
And the food safety game is a serious one. The Centers for Disease Control estimates one out of six Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year. Reducing foodborne illness by just 1 percent would keep about 500,000 Americans from getting sick each year, and reducing foodborne illness by 10 percent would keep about 5 million people from getting sick, according to the CDC.
This means food safety professionals are in high demand, which is something Yerramsetti experienced first-hand.
"Working at FAPC in the world of food safety and auditing afforded me an internship with Head Country, which led to a permanent position," he said. "The experience of assisting Head Country in its audit and achieving the highest rating was second-to-none."
In addition to professional, regulatory, production, processing and outreach assistance for the food industry, FAPC is a primary driver in a comprehensive food safety program administered through the umbrella of the OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. The food safety program also includes one of the first food safety degree options for food science majors in the world.
The degree option is housed in the division's academic college and largely is the result of collaboration between food industry leaders with ties to FAPC and university faculty, who saw the value of working together to respond to and meet changing industry demands.
This type of cooperative effort demonstrates how the university's land-grant mission, which combines research, classroom learning and hands-on, real-world Extension efforts, can provide meaningful assistance across all aspects of the food supply chain, said Ravi Jadeja, FAPC food safety specialist and assistant professor in the OSU Department of Animal Science.
"This undergraduate program provides students with a diverse, comprehensive curriculum that is inclusive to the entire food manufacturing chain, from production agriculture to post-harvest processing through retail distribution channels, as well as hands-on learning that make for well-rounded and much-sought-after food industry professionals," Jadeja said.
The goal of the option is to produce students who are uniquely qualified to take on roles in the food manufacturing sector. It combines knowledge of food science with critical issues relating to food safety, government regulations and food safety programs being required by government and industry leaders.
"Students in the food safety option earn certifications in HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points], FSMA [Food Safety Modernization Act] and GFSI [Global Food Safety Initiative] programs, such as SQF [Safe Quality Food] and BRC Global Standards, to ensure they are industry-ready upon graduation," Jadeja said. "The students also are trained to perform internal audits necessary in the food industry."
Charley Rayfield, food science undergraduate student, said from the moment she stepped on the OSU campus and took a tour of FAPC's state-of-the-art facility, she knew she wanted to major in food science with a food safety option.
"Having a degree in food safety will help me to better understand our food chain from the ground up," Rayfield said. "I feel it is important to do my part in ensuring food is produced safely and efficiently for a rapidly growing and ever-changing global population."
- By Mandy Gross