Professor Imran Ahmad says nothing beats a great steak. He constantly thinks about food. It’s his passion, his canvas and his expertise. As a food researcher, he’s studied all things edible down to their minute particles. From nutrition, packaging, safety and innovation, Ahmad’s decades of “marinating” in the science of food provided him with the drive to create a new online degree for the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management: the B.S. in Hospitality Management: Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The online food science degree fills gaps in the industry, he says, and will prepare students with the knowledge needed to make what we eat safer and more nutritious. It also teaches students how to bring food product ideas to market and make food even more enjoyable through science and according to consumer appetites, while being mindful of product labeling.
“About 35 percent of food recalls occur because allergens are not placed on labels. This has a huge economic impact for companies and the supply chain and can be dangerous for consumers,” Ahmad says.
New regulations, ongoing issues with food recalls and COVID-19 have worked in synergy to emphasize the growing skills gap within the food industry, Ahmad adds. There’s also a growing workforce shortage.
The pandemic forced business owners to think in innovative ways to find new streams of revenue, he explains. Thirty to 45 percent of restaurants shut down because they didn’t know how to move away from a just-in-time business model where food is made to order, he says.
Answering the calls
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we received hundreds of requests for information on how to preserve foods to place them on the shelf, and extend their shelf-life,” says Ahmad, who underscores that the new degree is not a restaurant safety degree. “This degree is quite broad and offers students the ability and tools to understand the science of food and how to be in compliance with federal regulations.”
Restaurant owners called looking for ways to keep money flowing in through packaged, proprietary sauces. Others looked for ideas on transforming indoor dining service to takeout and needed direction on packaging. Ahmad says some restaurants supplied delicious, fresh-cooked foods for larger restaurants to resell—they just needed to understand compliance, transportation and safety issues to do so.
Skills and knowledge
New Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Act requirements have shifted from responding to foodborne illnesses to the prevention of them. Businesses are now required to have at least one qualified individual on staff at food companies—before, outside consultants filled this role.
“This program helps fill this staffing need and addresses bioterrorism — things like the handling of leafy greens, bacteria, foodborne illnesses and pathogens, and transportation of food products,” he lists, “but it also offers students the entrepreneurial framework to launch their own processed food ideas, with ingredients that are healthier and that provide extended shelf-life.”
Designing processed foods
The bachelor’s degree focuses on four main areas: culinology, food safety, quality assurance and leadership. Students will learn about research and development and where “art and science intersect,” in the food innovation labs. This includes things like why a particular food may be blue or how to make something crispier. Courses in the program also offer embedded training and specialized FDA certification for food safety, and an FSQ standards micro-credential, as well.
Ahmad is practicing what he teaches; he’s waiting for word from outside investors on the acquisition of a pea-protein/beef innovation. And he has another idea: caviar-like flavor balls that melt in your mouth for mixed drinks.
It’s this kind of food product design and ingenuity that is infused and encouraged in the program, he says.
“The innovation portion of this program can be a real goldmine … but it’s hard to break into this industry and move from a weekend market-type of product to mainstream, national manufacturers if you don’t have the certification and know-how—the risks and safety issues will be too great. This major teaches all of that.”
Partnerships and growing demand
Currently, the program has partnered with large companies including Quirch Foods, Biomediu, Del Monte®, which will provide internship opportunities to FIU students.
“South Florida is a growing market as there are a lot of food companies and so many companies are in need of our graduates,” Ahmad says. “This is a specialized field, there’s high demand, and we’re teaching students immediately applicable skills to work for large companies and maybe even for themselves.”