The role of the quality and food safety manager has evolved. I’m thinking back to 20 years ago when I first started in a plant quality role and seeing how it has changed so much.

At the time, the role seemed easy to me. I was eager to apply what I learned in college and get some on-the-job experience. I found, very quickly, that much of what I did daily didn’t necessarily require my recent coursework, and I found myself drinking from a new firehose learning about the processes, checks, rules and paperwork needed to do the job.

Now, 20 years later, I see many new challenges and requirements that make the role of any food safety and quality professional a completely different endeavor. As I’ve observed how our roles in this profession have evolved, key areas stand out that I believe make our profession more challenging and require a broader set of skills and investment in our knowledge to be successful and impactful.

Risk assessment. Every company I’ve been at has a different model and approach for risk assessments. Sure, there are lots of structured approaches that can be followed, but there is also a gray space that seems to be involved in risk assessments that isn’t cut and dry.

I’ll be honest, I don’t recall learning about risk assessment in my college coursework. This skill was learned through various roles and experiences in my career. You do get better (and more confident) at assessing risk the more you do it. This is now part of any quality and food safety manager’s role on an almost daily basis. There are more regulations, more customer requirements and more testing than ever before.

Ingredient knowledge. Ingredients carry a variety of risks and require a thorough evaluation to determine how to manage or mitigate those risks. But how do you become an ingredient expert when you have 5,000-plus raw materials to manage in your portfolio? This isn’t an easy answer and, frankly, continues to be a challenge.

With the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the hazard assessment for ingredients was supplemented with the “Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food: Draft Guidance for Industry” document (otherwise known as Appendix 1) as a reference for known hazards. But it doesn’t cover all areas of ingredient risks, including food fraud.

In addition, this guidance has broad categories such as “pesticides,” “heavy metals” and “drug residues,” which don’t have the level of specificity needed when developing a monitoring plan for an ingredient.

Large CPGs likely have subject matter experts on staff or internal departments that have a deeper knowledge of ingredients and cover ingredient safety completely. For smaller organizations, much of the ingredient safety assessment is done locally to the best of their knowledge. When funding is available, consultants can be hired.

Data competencies. There is an overwhelming need for FSQ professionals to become digitally competent and data-driven. Over the past 20 years, a great number of systems and software have been created to support quality and food safety processes and information needs. Many of these have helped streamline tasks and workflows, allowing us to move away from paper-based systems and have repositories for the massive amounts of data and documents that are a mainstay in our departments.

An area that has taken off over the last several years across all industries has been data analytics. It is the next step in how we make our data more powerful, whether it provides insights, helps with decision-making or ultimately becomes predictive for us.

Where quality and food safety falls short in is understanding the power of data, how to use it and how it can be leveraged with other data to create powerful streams of information. Let’s face it, food safety and quality professionals aren’t data scientists and didn’t go to school for that. Many data analytics terminologies are foreign to most seasoned food safety leaders.

The next challenge for our function is to build these competencies into our staff: staffing data scientists, developing citizen data scientists within our current staff, having internal company departments with expertise to support FSQ and having third parties support data analysis needs where it can’t be supported internally.

I know there is a lot more an FSQ professional must shoulder today. The challenge is ensuring these skills are supported and developed as our profession evolves and modernizes.