Yuma County's leafy greens serve as the winter salad bowl for the U.S. Produce safety is one of the components of the UA's new food safety undergraduate degree program curriculum. (Photo: Debbie Reed)
Yuma County's leafy greens serve as the winter salad bowl for the U.S. Produce safety is one of the components of the UA's new food safety undergraduate degree program curriculum. (Photo: Debbie Reed)

UA Offers New Food Safety Undergraduate Degree

An interdisciplinary program offered through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will prepare students to handle the evolving safety challenges facing the food industry.
Dec. 4, 2017
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Arizona provides an ideal location for food safety studies and internships relating to the overall food sector and various food industries.  

  • Arizona is the nation's largest winter producer of leafy greens and vegetables.
  • Livestock production and ranching contribute $1.7 billion to the state's economic output.
  • Arizona dairy production is ranked 13th in the nation.
  • Producers of poultry, eggs, juices, citrus fruit, tree nuts and more are all important contributors to the state's economy.

Advantages for students:

  • Access to growers, producers, distributors and manufacturers of a wide variety of products
  • Proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border for further understanding of cross-border procedures and compliances with the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations
  • Preparation to work across a range of environments and locations

Food safety degree: https://foodsafety.arizona.edu/

Careers: https://foodsafety.arizona.edu/careers

Food industry professionals in the Yuma area can take classes and work toward a degree in food safety through a distance learning program. (Photo: Sadhana Ravishankar)
Food industry professionals in the Yuma area can take classes and work toward a degree in food safety through a distance learning program. (Photo: Sadhana Ravishankar)

A breach in food safety can be catastrophic to individuals and businesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans gets sick from contaminated foods or beverages and 3,000 die each year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that foodborne illnesses cost $15.6 billion annually.

Education in the food industry is becoming increasingly important as companies realize they can't just assign food safety duties to someone already on staff who may not have a background sufficient for the job. The stakes are too high. In one of the worst cases, 33 people died and 147 were sickened from a 2011 listeria outbreak traced to cantaloupe grown near Rocky Ford, Colorado. The cantaloupe had been shipped to 28 states. Even without the health implications, a serious recall alone could put a company out of business.

The need for employees trained in food safety will continue to grow as challenges to food safety continue to change. Tanya Hodges is the regional academic coordinator for the University of Arizona in Yuma and La Paz counties in Arizona and Imperial County in California. She says the demand for educated, skilled food safety professions exceeds the number of qualified individuals in those areas and across the U.S. in general. With the food production and supply chain becoming more global as foods are moved around the world, qualified graduates will be needed in all facets of the industry.

To meet this demand, the UA has created a new bachelor's degree program in food safety, which will begin in fall 2018. The program is housed in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The interdisciplinary program includes faculty and courses from the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, ACBS and four other units in CALS: the Department of Nutritional Sciences; Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science; School of Plant Sciences; and Department of Entomology.

By bringing together experts and educators already working on food safety and its applications in each of these fields, students graduating from the program will gain knowledge of the entire food safety domain.

In her letter of support for the program, Hodges states: "The new food safety degree is vitally important in the educational preparation and workforce development that will lead students into the agriculture food safety industry. What most don't realize is that most jobs involved in food safety require advanced and very specific science and math competencies that can only be gained through very specific coursework. Food safety is a relatively new concept and profession."

In addition to the UA's general education requirements, the curriculum includes 10 core courses that make up the basis of food safety education. Students will develop an all-around perspective in food safety, epidemiology, food toxicology and legalities in the food industry.

With the help of their adviser, students also will select food safety electives based on their area of interest. Areas of specialization might include produce, animal production, public health, food science and microbiology.

"This new food safety program presents students with an opportunity to gain an education with an integrated food safety curriculum designed to provide them with the necessary knowledge and problem-solving skills to thrive in tomorrow's food safety-related 'food industry' workplace,'' said ACBS director André-Denis Wright. "Students completing this program will have a unique and highly desirable credential, which will likely provide them a competitive edge in the marketplace. Careers can be found in local, state and federal agencies, public health, academia, and industry."

To address the acute need for food safety professionals, a distance learning program in food safety will be offered in Yuma. Yuma County is the nation's third-largest vegetable producer and supplies 90 percent of the nation's leafy vegetables between November and March. The area produces more than 175 different crops and seeds, and accounts for more than a third of Arizona's total agricultural revenue. The distance learning class format is designed to accommodate working professionals in the Yuma area who want to further their careers by obtaining a food safety degree.

Distance learning students will attend UA classes in real time using Adobe Connect and D2L, giving them the same class experience as Tucson students without having to relocate. Arrangements are being made to offer classes with hands-on components at local community college facilities in Yuma.

"We are excited to be the first to offer a major that looks at overall food safety in Arizona," said Sadhana Ravishankar, ACBS associate professor and chair of the Food Safety Academic Program Planning Committee. "This program will produce scientists who can be a part of the workforce in Arizona, the U.S. and the world."

Applications for the food safety degree program are currently available.