Food Microbiologist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Food microbiologists work on the front line of food safety. Employed by food manufacturers, the government, and universities, these specialists study food-borne pathogens and work on disease prevention. Their research ensures food products abide by government regulations regarding food health and safety. Food microbiologists may need an advanced degree for some positions.

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Job Description for a Food Microbiologist

Food microbiologists research micro-organisms in food and are tasked primarily with preventing food-borne diseases. They study food poisoning, spoilage, and preservation, as well as participating in food legislation establishment and enforcement.The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes the main task of food microbiologists as ensuring the safety of food products (www.fsis.usda.gov).

Salary and Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), microbiologists earned an average of $73,250 per year as of 2012. The number of job openings for microbiologists was expected to increase 7% from 2012-2022, which is slightly lower than the national average of roughly 11% for that time period.

Duties for a Food Microbiologist

Above all, food microbiologists focus on how microbes harm food. Food microbiologists employed in the food manufacturing industry observe how the processing and packaging of food products affects food preservation over time. They implement improvements that ensure food manufacturers are complying with government food safety regulations. Those working for the government might serve as researchers in a laboratory, or function as educators to raise public awareness of disease prevention.

Food microbiologists employed by universities typically split their job duties between their own research projects and teaching courses. Food microbiology researchers may coordinate projects from monitoring the growth of bacteria cultures to checking raw food for pathogens. Organizations like the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST) coordinate the efforts of food microbiologists with those of nutritionists, food processors, and manufacturers (www.iit.edu/ifsh).Their research also informs food processors about how to enhance the quality of their food products.

Requirements for a Food Microbiologist

Students who plan on majoring in food science may enroll in a four-year program in food science approved by the Institute of Food Technology (IFT). The IFT's website has a list of qualifying schools (www.ift.org). Alternatively, students may obtain a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology or Biology. Courses in these programs generally explore topics in microbial physiology, reproduction, and genetics. Students also take lab courses in which they use microscopes and other equipment to observe microorganisms and report on their findings.

Advanced Degree

Aspiring food microbiologists may need to complete a master's degree or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in food microbiology, food science, or a related field. Coursework may include organic chemistry, microbiology, statistics, physics, virology, plant pathology, and microbial genetics. Graduate students may also look for internships and research positions where they may work alongside experienced food microbiologists. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has a number of resources for graduate students, including information on internships, research opportunities, and fellowships (www.asm.org).

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