Food microbiologists provide clear proof that large careers can be made out of small organisms. Microbiologists focus on the study of microscopic organisms, such as yeasts and bacteria, and food microbiologists apply that knowledge to the science of food. They're the ones who find new ways to preserve and improve products, and keep food safe to eat.
Refining and Improving Natural Processes
Some of the oldest and best-loved human foods rely on the work of yeasts and bacteria. Without them, there'd be no wine and no cheese, no bread and no pickles. Other food-related items including tea, coffee, cocoa, cold cuts and even dry-cured bacon and hams develop their familiar flavors through fermentation and bacterial action. Understanding these processes, and finding ways to refine and improve them, is one of the food microbiologist's major roles. Some find ways to produce better and richer flavors, while others search for ways to make the process faster and less costly.
Keeping today's food safe for tomorrow's meals is an ancient human preoccupation, and it's another key part of the food microbiologist's world. Salting, smoking, drying and pickling foods are all ancient preservation techniques. The rise of canning during the 19th century and freezing in the 20th century were landmark innovations. Microbiologists study how well these processes eliminate the bacteria that cause spoilage and illness, looking for ways to maintain quality and safety for longer periods of time.
Food safety is a close cousin to food preservation, and it's equally important to food microbiologists. Industrial food manufacturers need to know that their processed food products will remain safe throughout their recommended shelf life, while growers and wholesalers of produce have to know that their fruits and vegetables -- often eaten without cooking -- don't contain dangerous levels of microorganisms. Food microbiologists study the growth and reproduction of hazardous microorganisms, or pathogens, so they can learn how to slow or stop their growth. Many specialists in this field work for the government, doing pure research or inspecting food-handling facilities.
Microbiologists working in the commercial food manufacturing industry are often involved in the effort to develop new food products, working with previously unexploited ingredients or with old ingredients in new ways. For example, food microbiologists can use bacteria or yeasts to break food ingredients like corn into their component parts, just as food chemists use chemicals. Bacteria and yeasts have the advantage of being sustainable and self-renewing, and therefore, cheaper and more environmentally friendly for the manufacturer.
There are several paths into a career in food microbiology, depending how ambitious you are. A bachelor's degree in microbiology is enough for some jobs in the field, but they're usually technical positions rather than scientific. Many positions usually require at least a master's degree, and you usually need a Ph.D. to run independent research programs or get into management. Food microbiologists often work in private industry for manufacturers, but they can also carve out worthwhile careers in academia, government and other workplaces.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.