Last week saw the publication of a new report from the UK-based food research and consultancy organisation Campden BRI. The report, Practical microbiology training needs of the food and drink manufacturing and retail sectors, identified some rather worrying gaps in microbiological skills and knowledge in the industry. This applied not only to food technologists and managers, but to some of those employed as microbiologists too.
The report’s findings were based on the results of an industry-wide consultation, which collected feedback from food manufacturers and retailers, including Sainsbury’s, Greencore, 2 Sisters Food Group and Marks & Spencer. It gives a detailed analysis of exactly what microbiological skills and experience are needed throughout the industry. The purpose of the exercise was to inform Campden BRI about the microbiology training needs of the UK food sector and help it design more relevant training courses and continuing professional development programmes for its member companies. The idea is that future training programmes will be a better fit with the practical needs of industry so that the knowledge gap the report identified can be bridged.
In my view, what the Campden BRI report has identified are the consequences of a process that has been in operation for about 20 years. Before then, many medium and large sized food manufacturers employed dedicated food microbiologists and often operated in-house laboratories. To some extent this was a hangover from the pre-HACCP era, when the quality control approach still ruled and testing large numbers of finished product samples was the preferred way to ensure food safety and quality. The rise of HACCP moved the emphasis away from product testing towards the prevention of contamination during processing. This is clearly a better approach and much more likely to be effective, but as product testing became less important, so did the role of the microbiology lab. A large number of manufacturers closed their labs and outsourced testing to third party organisations, leaving experienced food microbiologists significantly under-employed. Many left the industry altogether, moved into general management roles, or were forced to take on additional responsibilities, such as quality assurance, cleaning and hygiene, or even health and safety. This process has inevitably led to a dilution of microbiological knowledge and skills, and it goes a long way towards explaining the report’s findings.
It simply isn’t possible to ensure food safety without a detailed knowledge of the hazards that must be controlled and that means having a big enough pool of knowledge to call on when something goes wrong or new challenges emerge. Of course we can all be instant experts now through the miracle of the search engine – that is what Food Safety Watch is all about – but that is not the same as having access to an experienced microbiologist who understands the subject in real depth and can relate their knowledge to specific situations. I hope the Campden BRI report can act as a wake-up call to the industry to make sure it doesn’t allow more valuable experience to haemorrhage away with no immediate prospect of replacement.