Training and Education

The Food Safety Journey

It is funny how when you reflect on your life, events that seem insignificant at the time, become the foundation of what drives you. For me, it is food safety and food poisoning prevention.

Some time back in the early 1980’s, I guess I would have been around 10 or 11 years old, I distinctly remember hearing about a food poisoning outbreak. It was all over the media in Australia – on the TV and in the papers. The food product at the centre of this food poisoning outbreak was said to be canned champignons (AKA small mushrooms) imported from Taiwan.  My questions to my parents were relentless. How did it happen? Why did it happen? How can you stop it happening? How can people just die or get sick from eating food? Unfortunately, they were not able to give me enough answers, outside of what was reported by the media, to satisfy my curiosity. In hindsight, I think that this event, even though I did not know this at the time, was the catalyst to where I am today.

School is out

Fast forward 12 years and I found myself fresh out of Year 12 (senior school) and ready to journey into the big wide world. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. There were inklings towards the police force but this was quickly dismissed when I attended an information day. I had not really thought about the possibility that I could get shot while swanning around in that uniform. I applied to go to University to become a Town Planner. After being accepted, I then got too scared about having to leave the security of my family. So I did what any good daughter does – stay in my home town and help out in the family business (a liquor store).

To study or not to study?

After 6 months of this routine it became apparent that I needed to do something different.  My parents were constantly dropping subtle hints that I should go and study something. So I did. I enrolled in a hospitality and catering course at my local technical college. This was great. I studied through the day and then worked in the hospitality industry waitressing and doing bar work at night. My first part-time waitressing job saw my food safety values ignited when a customer I had served found a cockroach in their meal.  When I took the meal back to the chef, he promptly flicked it off the plate and told me to take it back out to the customer. That is when I quit working at that restaurant.

I found another part-time job quickly and finished my studies. My life was great. I worked at night and hung out at the beach through the day. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t feel that my lifestyle was a viable long-term option. I was sternly told it was “time to get a real job and go to University”.  I still did not know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  Decisions, decisions. I was reading the job ads in my local paper and finally had my attention sparked with a job at the local Council. It was for a trainee health and building surveyor.  I thought this could be interesting. I didn’t get the job but decided to move away anyway and start my University studies in Environmental Health. The course sounded interesting enough and it would get my parents off my back.

Knowledge is the food of the Soul

My course was very interesting but challenging at the same time. I had not studied science in depth since I had left school. One of the great things about my course was that in our third year we had to do compulsory 12 months’ work experience. I really wanted to work back in my home town as I missed my family and friends. I managed to land a paid placement with a local council. The work was interesting and varied with noise complaint investigations, building development approvals, water quality testing at the public swimming pools and food shop inspections. Unfortunately, funding permitted a placement for 8 weeks only. I had to find somewhere else to finish my compulsory work experience.

Feeling a bit down about my work situation I decided to take a walk into the city foreshore. During my walk, I happened to run into the father of a girl I went to high school with. We got to talking and as luck would have it, he worked as a Health Inspector for the NSW Department of Health. I told him of my predicament and he said that I should come and talk to his boss now. I wasn’t prepared at all. I was wearing jeans (hardly an interview worthy outfit) and did not have a copy of my resume with me. Before I knew it, I was sitting in front of the Director for Public Health pleading my case. To my surprise he said “when can you start”?

Protecting the public – food safety style

That jumped started my career into public health and two years later, when I became fully qualified, into food inspection and compliance. I really loved working with the Public Health Unit. Both the Director of Public Health and my direct Food Inspection boss became trusted friends and mentors. Being in a position to be able to help and protect the public from disease, injury and illness was extremely satisfying and rewarding. Investigating food poisoning outbreaks was a favourite. This, I think, stemmed back to my curiosity as a child in wanting to understand how the Taiwan canned mushroom outbreak occurred. It was like being a bug detective – trying to find out what made people sick.

Fast forward to the year 1998, where our team’s investigative skills were tested to the extreme. Our unit had 6 confirmed deaths due to Listeria. We didn’t know where it was coming from and were completely stumped after the usual suspects were ruled out. It took us just on 19 months to find the culprit to be processed fruit salad. The insuring finger-pointing, cover-ups and government gags had me questioning my ability to protect the public’s health. When you are prevented from doing your job for the sake of political interest you start to question your position. I also found it very hard not to speak my mind in such matters. I will leave it at that.

New beginnings

In the year 2000, I bid farewell to my “public health family” to start my own food safety consultancy business, Salamanda Food Safety Managers (now renamed as HACCP Mentor). My focus was to be writing HACCP plans, food labelling, training and auditing. I have never looked back.

Sixteen years on I still remain passionate about food safety especially, education and compliance. Auditing compliance standards doesn’t really do it for me anymore, but that is mainly about the paperwork and reporting involved. Writing weekly articles and sharing my knowledge is the best way that I can help prevent food poisoning and injury.  If I can help you look at or do differently, just one thing to promote food safety, I feel like I have made a difference.

Share your Story

How did you get into “Food Safety”? Did you know from the start? Share your journey by leaving a comment below this post.

PS: I still don’t eat canned mushrooms but fresh mushrooms – love them 🙂


16 thoughts on “The Food Safety Journey”

  1. Dear Amanda,
    Thank you for your very interesting and inspiring story. I believe that somehow God orders out steps through events that occur as we progress along the paths of life without our conscious efforts. I was very good in both arts and science subjects in my higher school days and initially wanted to study Medicine in the University but ended up with Microbiology which was my second choice. I did not know much about microbiology at that time but had to indicate three choices of the desired course of study on the University Entrance Examination Form so I chose Microbiology because some of my friends chose it! After graduation I taught microbiology briefly in a School of Nursing during the compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme and began toying with the idea of focusing on medical microbiology. However all that changed after I got a job with the Federal Government as a Food & Drug Inspecting Officer in the Federal Ministry of Health and became more interested in food microbiology. Eventually, the National Agency for Food & Drug Administration & Control (NAFDAC) was carved out of the Federal Ministry of Health and established as a national regulatory body in 1993. It was fascinating and fulfilling to be able to contribute to food safety, consumer health protection and international trade in safe food through regulatory control of the importation, exportation, manufacture, distribution advertisement and sale of food amongst other things. I progressed over time to become the Head of Codex Unit, the Head of Regulatory Affairs Division and finally the Head of Food Safety, SPS and Codex Division before I retired to set up Nugata Consults Ltd a Food Safety, SPS and Compliance Audit service provider that offers food safety and trade facilitating solutions. During my years of service I garnered a lot of experience and expertise participating in the meetings of national and international bodies including the standard setting programme of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the WTO-SPS Committee. These experience and expertise are brought to bear in our services which include training programmes for operators along the food value chain to improve the safety and quality of food offered for sale to the consumer and that moves in international trade.
    Your articles, templates and other resources offered through the HACCP Mentor have been very useful for training and guidance. Thank you very much.
    Jane Omojokun.

    1. WOW Jane! What a great adventure with great accomplishments. I wonder how many other school leavers have made their study decisions based on what their friends were doing 🙂

  2. Nomfundo Nonqandela

    Hi Amanda very interesting article. While in highschool I wanted to be a nurse and my second option was environmental studies and so as my mum was interested in me as nurse. After I finished my metric I applied in nursing schools and was taken to start. On my first year when we we were doing practicals it came to our attentions that the school was not registered so we had to leave and go back home. One of the nights after I’m back it came to my mind that I had a second option and I thought of looking for it but unfortunately I couldn’t study the point system was too high and my mum had no money to push me further for another course and I decided to look for work.
    I started on food industry where we were packing food and then after I was promoted on supervision. I continued and then a year later I was on logistics and unfortunately there were lot glitches between my senior and me and I decided to leave the post. I then turn back to my employer informing him I don’t like to be on logistics since we had lots of problems. He insisted I must continue, after he heard the fight between the two of us he then decided to move me to another post.
    I was called on boardroom informed that there is a new job in which they are looking for someone and they thinking of introducing me to it should I be interested and perform well on it.

    Guess what – that was HACCP, and that was my start of my journey. After I saw it it reminded of my environmental studies. I could manage to do and I grab it with both hands and it became my career till date.

  3. Amanda, your story is amazing and inspiring. I also fell into my position by chance. I started in a small company as a sales associate and then acquired production manager, distribution manager, logistics coordinator, IT analyst, safety manager, until finally I have the title of General Manager/SQF Practitioner. My main responsibilities are focused on the food safety of our business.

    Thank you for all that you offer on HACCP Mentor. The articles, templates, training material you offer has helped me to accept this responsibility with more knowledge of what needs to be done within the scope of our business.

    I also find your story inspiring and will share with my son, who is still trying to discover what direction to go to fulfill his passion. Thank you, Eva

    1. Thanks for your kind words Eva and for sharing your story. My daughter is in the indecision mode at the moment as well. She is about to travel to Europe for an 8 week discovery tour so hopefully when she gets back she will be ready to jump back into study.

  4. Let me share my very recent experience on perceived food safety.My daughter’s wedding took place on the 4th June 2016. A day or two I called some of the guests to appreciate their attendance. A 70+ man claimed his ordeal from food poisoning from the meals at the reception. I asked questions if it was a case of food infection or food poisoning.He was emphatic about his condition and the medical treatment given him.I started a network of enquiries from guests who shared the same table with him and others out side his table.The outcome from interviews revealed he is an ulcer patient who over indulged himself.Funny enough he was full of apologies for the misinformation when I visited him .

    1. Thanks Ato for sharing your recent story. A lot of the time people are quick to blame food for their illness without considering other factors.

  5. Hi Amanda
    Very insightful journey! Mine started similar. a way… When i was 7, my dad got a cut on his finger. Being a farmer, thought nothing of it. By the following afternoon he was rushed to RPA nearly dead. The culprit was S aureus. Spending most of that year in hospital, I decided I was going to be a doctor so I could help people. …fast forward 10 years my financial ability to study medicine was not healthy. I also looked at joining the police force, but didn’t think it was a good fit. I studied agriculture at university and got a part time job at an abbitoir to make ends meet. I was offered a full time position in the quality department and I love it. the investigation to cause and effect, education of colleagues. of all i got paid to get dirty and I didn’t have to launder the clothes.
    25 years later i still enjoy learning something new every day. Not every job offers that

    1. It is great to love what you do Linda and to be in the position that you are in. I always think that if I don’t learn something new every day, I should have just stayed in bed 🙂

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