COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Without enough food science professionals to fill jobs available, many scientists working in the food industry are chemists, microbiologists or engineers who have never been trained specifically in food science.

That's why Ohio State University's Department of Food Science and Technology offers an online series of five courses leading to a Certificate of Proficiency in Food Science. Jeff Culbertson, professor of food science, teaches the courses in addition to the classes he teaches on campus.

"I started teaching this type of course online about seven years ago at the University of Idaho, with the help of a USDA Challenge Grant," Culbertson said. "We recognized that a lot of people working in the food industry needed training in food science and technology to be able to interface with food scientists in areas such as new product development

Across the nation, only about 70 percent of the food science and processing jobs requiring a degree can be filled. Attracted by the career opportunities and the program's quality, undergraduate enrollment in Ohio State's food science program has more than doubled in the last three years to 150.

Culbertson offers one certification course per quarter. Classes can be taken in any order, so professionals can sign up at any time. Participants don't have to take a class every quarter if their schedule doesn't allow for it; they can wait to take a class the next time it's offered.

In the three years since the courses have been offered through Ohio State, about 300 food industry professionals have taken online classes, and about 30 certificates have been issued in recognition of series completion, Culbertson said.

The courses are:

"Introduction to Food Processing," being offered currently.

"Introduction to Food Science," to be offered this summer. Interested participants can sign up beginning June 1; the class begins June 22.

"Food Biosecurity," offered in autumn 2009.

"Food Safety and Quality," scheduled for winter 2010.

"Food Chemical Safety," scheduled for spring 2010.

Culbertson has about 20 or 30 students a quarter from a wide variety of companies, including Cooper Farms, Smuckers, Procter and Gamble, Silliker Labs, Abbott Nutrition and Rudolph's Foods in Ohio, Gardenburger (Utah), Trident Seafoods (Seattle and Alaska), McCormick Spice (Baltimore), as well as Heinz, Starbucks, Land o' Lakes, Pepsico/Frito-Lay, and many others.

"These courses are specifically designed for people who already have full-time jobs in the food industry," Culbertson said. "Over the course of a little more than a year, they can get all of the basic coverage in food science that they'll likely encounter on the job. As with any discipline, there's a lot of terminology -- shop talk -- that people from other disciplines might not be familiar with. And when developing new food products, communication is paramount." At the very least, the classes help familiarize participants with the language and background they need.

In addition, the class uses online discussion tools so participants can share with each other during weekly live chats, Culbertson said. "They're not mandatory, but about 80 percent of the students attend any given chat. With people from so many different areas of food manufacturing participating, they can network and discuss their particular challenges as they relate to the course. Someone manufacturing coffee might talk about problems they've encountered importing coffee beans into the United States under new federal guidelines, and someone else from a totally different industry might offer suggestions for streamlining the process. There's a real exchange of ideas and support that's not precisely course-related but offers a lot of benefits for participants."

The course series is an important aspect of the outreach activities offered by the department, Culbertson said. "It allows us to interact with a lot of Ohio companies and companies nationwide, and offer a service to help them produce a higher-quality and safer products. It has helped us establish a rapport with many companies, small and large."

Each course is $500 with a discount offered for three or more employees from the same company. The department uses the funds earned in the course to upgrade technology used in online teaching, to support graduate students and for general department needs.

SOURCE: Ohio State.