Professor Imran Ahmad says nothing beats a great steak. He always thinks about food. It’s his passion, his canvas and his expertise. As a food researcher, he examined everything edible down to the smallest particle. From nutrition, packaging, safety and innovation – Ahmad’s decades of “marinating” in food science gave him the impetus to create a new online degree for the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management: the BS in Hospitality Management: Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The online food science degree fills gaps in the industry, he says, and will equip students with the knowledge needed to make what we eat safer and more nutritious. Students will also learn how to bring food product ideas to market and how to make food even more enjoyable through science and according to consumer appetites, while also paying attention to product labeling.
“About 35 percent of food recalls are because allergens are not listed on labels. This has huge economic implications for businesses and the supply chain, and can be dangerous for consumers,” says Ahmad.
New regulations, ongoing food recall issues and COVID-19 have worked together to emphasize the growing skills gap in the food industry, Ahmad adds. In addition, there is an increasing labor shortage.
The pandemic has forced business owners to think innovatively to find new revenue streams, he explains. 30 to 45 percent of restaurants are closing because they don’t know how to move away from a just-in-time, made-to-order business model, he says.
answering the calls
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we received hundreds of requests for information about how to preserve food to put it on the shelf and extend its shelf life,” says Ahmad, who stresses that the new deal is not a restaurant safety deal. “This degree is fairly broad and provides students with the skills and tools to understand food science and comply with federal regulations.”
Restaurant owners were calling, looking for ways to keep the cash flowing through packaged, proprietary sauces. Others were looking for ideas for converting indoor dining to takeout and needed packaging instructions. Ahmad says some restaurants shipped delicious, freshly prepared food to larger restaurants for resale – all they had to do was understand compliance, transportation and safety issues.
skills and knowledge
The requirements of the New Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) have shifted from responding to foodborne illnesses to preventing them. Businesses are now required to employ at least one qualified person in food companies – before outside consultants took over that role.
“This program helps meet those human resource needs and addresses bioterrorism—things like handling leafy greens, bacteria, foodborne diseases and pathogens, and transporting food,” he lists, “but it also gives students the entrepreneurial framework to start her own ideas for processed foods with healthier ingredients and longer shelf lives.”
Shaping processed foods
The undergraduate program focuses on four main areas: Culinology, Food Safety, Quality Assurance and Leadership. In the food innovation labs, students learn about research and development and where ‘art and science intersect’. This includes things like why a certain food can be blue or how to make something crunchier. Courses in the program also provide embedded training and specialized FDA food safety certification and micro-verification to FSQ standards.
Ahmad practices what he teaches; he is awaiting news from outside investors about the acquisition of a pea protein/beef innovation. And he has another idea: caviar-like taste balls that melt in the mouth for mixed drinks.
It’s that kind of food product design and ingenuity that feeds into the program and is encouraged, he says.
“The innovation portion of this program can be a real goldmine…but it’s difficult to break into this industry and go from a weekend market product to a nationwide mainstream manufacturer without the certification and know-how – the risks and safety issues.” will be too big. This major teaches all that.”
Partnerships and growing demand
Currently, the program partners with large companies such as Quirch Foods, Biomediu, and Del Monte® that offer internship opportunities to FIU students.
“South Florida is a growing market because there are many food companies and so many companies need our graduates,” says Ahmad. “This is a specialty, demand is high, and we’re providing students with immediately applicable skills to work for large companies and maybe even for themselves.”