Interested in a steady, government-funded career which allows you to have a direct and major influence on improving the health and safety of others?
Assuming that you have a reasonably strong stomach, the food inspection field could be an excellent vocation for you. These professionals ensure the safety of the meat, fish, eggs, and produce we consume on a daily basis, and because of the recession-proof nature of these jobs, food inspection represents a remarkably steady and consistent vocational path.
If this sounds appealing to you, we've got you covered...because we’re going to break down the educational and experiential requirements for pursuing a career in food inspection, the salary range you can expect to earn in this profession, the type of job growth you can anticipate in this field, where to seek out food inspection positions, and the crucial differences between a career as a food inspector and a career as a health inspector.
The majority of food inspectors in the United States work under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the USDA), the United States Food and Drug Administration, and numerous other federal and state-level government agencies. The USDA- the largest employer of food inspectors nationwide- divides food inspector responsibilities into 2 categories:
Consumer safety inspection
For the former, inspectors find themselves assigned to privately-owned meat, poultry, and egg-processing plants in their jurisdictions. Their responsibilities include ensuring that the plants fulfill their plans for sanitation, processing, and HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points).
They’re also in charge of conducting oversight on regulatory measures related to customer protection (like ensuring that products are correctly branded and labeled). All data gathered by the inspectors must be reported to the USDA in order for the plant or slaughterhouse to maintain its good standing in the view of the Department and, therefore, to remain operational.
For the latter, food inspectors are stationed at airports, docks, and other points of entry for the United States. They review any food products shipped into the country via aircrafts and ships and make sure that they meet the same safety standards expected of products produced domestically.
Because food inspection requires the ability to make quick, educated decisions and also involves a certain degree of physical strength and stamina, the Department of Agriculture sets forth a few educational and training necessities for prospective applicants.
The Department of Agriculture prefers food inspector candidates to have completed a Bachelor’s degree prior to submitting an application, and post-undergraduates seeking a career in this field are encouraged to major in a relevant course of study, like biology, mathematics, or physical or agricultural sciences.
Students prepping for graduation can get a jump on the job-application process by submitting their food inspector applications up to nine months before they graduate. However, even if you don’t have that diploma, they’ll also consider you for admission if you have a minimum of one year of work experience in livestock and/or food handling. Relevant past positions include meat cutter/butcher, lab assistant in the food industry, food or livestock manager/supervisor and veterinary technician.
In addition to the aforementioned educational and work-experience qualifications, prospective food inspectors must complete an online assessment questionnaire administered by the Department of Agriculture.
For certain food inspector roles (particularly those located in processing plants or slaughterhouses), a physical fitness test must also be completed by candidates.
A complete application includes a resume, a college transcript (for new grads without relevant work experience), a completed questionnaire and physical-fitness exam, and a full background check.
According to the Department of Labor, food inspectors can expect to earn between $32,318 and $52,043 a year, depending on seniority and location.
In addition to schedule flexibility and frequent travel, one of the biggest perks of a career in food inspection involves this job track’s remarkable consistency. Even in tough economic times, jobs like food inspection are always necessary, and because they’re government positions, those who hold them can rely on strong benefits in addition to a steady paycheck.
In terms of career growth, food inspectors can frequently count on job mobility; if you’re working as a food inspector in one state but want to relocate elsewhere, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find a comparable position in your new home state. Food inspectors who excel at their work can often find their way into the private sector by accepting food safety manager positions. These individuals oversee prep, storage, and packaging processes and constantly seek to improve the productivity and safety of food plants and production facilities. Because these manager roles are typically hired by individual companies (rather than by the state or federal government), food safety managers can expect a higher salary, with current national averages hovering at $62,000 (according to Payscale).
To find entry-level food inspector jobs, you’ll want to look straight to the USDA’s website. There, you can enter in your zip code and find application calls in your area for a variety of inspector positions. Food inspector jobs come in two forms: “permanent” (full-time) or “Intermittent” (a part-time role for those who can sub in for other inspectors if needed).
If you’re interested in a more senior role (like that of a food safety manager), those are primarily listed by private companies, so you’ll want to check job listing boards and resources.
Now, for a common misconception of this career path: many people assume that “food inspectors” are the same folks who drop in unannounced at restaurants to check on kitchen safety and make sure that all food items have been properly sourced and stored. Those professionals actually fall under a different category: in most cases, “health inspectors” work for the State Department of Health (rather than the USDA).
Health inspectors require a formal license in order to practice their professions, and like food inspectors, they perform a large percentage of their work in-the-field rather than in an office setting. Health inspectors currently earn a median salary of $43,340 nationwide, according to Payscale.