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.
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 🙂