Ever since the advent of 'Talkies' which evolved from the old silent movies, the dialogs and songs picturised in the cinemas have made them one of the most popular entertainment media without which life can be very boring. The movies to day are either highly actor oriented or music-driven. In India popular songs can carry the picture all the way as a commercial success. In what way cinema and food are inter-connected? Though cinema has nothing to do with food, the analogy of picturization that goes with its production has some commonalities. The play back singers who lend their voice to heroes and heroines have their counter parts in the food sector. The group of technical people who lend their expertise and efforts from behind the scene, unknown and unnoticed, form the backbone of food industry and the food quality enforcement agencies, instilling the much needed confidence amongst the consumers regarding the safety of foods they consume. Of course consumer is well informed about brands, the manufacturers, retailers and data printed on the labels which enable them to make choices based on their past experiences.
Who are these people behind the industry who provide such a vital service? They are collectively called Chemists which is misnomer since food quality is much more than mere chemistry but involves microbiology, physics, biology, toxicology, nutrition and other disciplines of science. Quality is not measured in terms of its chemical composition alone but other parameters that can influence the health of the consumer. A mere degree in chemistry was adequate earlier to determine the proximate composition of foods but specialized knowledge about other branches of science has become crucial for assessing the overall quality and safety of any food. Personnel involved in quality assurance function are called upon to day to shoulder many responsibilities which include raw material suitability for processing, deciding about process control adequacy, finished product assessment, sanitation and hygiene of the processing facilities, food spoilage diagnosis and complaints analysis. With ISO and HACCP certifications becoming standard norms in the food industry, the functions and responsibilities quality control (QC) personnel have become multi dimensional which a conventional chemist is not equipped to handle. Under the new FSSA regime, hundreds of "qualified" food testing personnel will be required to man the food safety monitoring responsibilities while industry will also need same personnel for functions like quality control, process control and quality auditing. Is this country really equipped to meet such a demand, current as well as future?
There are many institutions in India offering courses in food science, food technology, home science, food and nutrition etc and most of these courses have a small program concerning food analysis. But the coverage is so small that the graduates coming out cannot take up the role of a QC professional and the food technology graduates rarely go for a laboratory job unless it is R & D oriented with sufficient challenges. That leaves the field open to graduates in chemistry or microbiology who are ill-equipped to look at food quality in a holistic way. The mechanical approach by these graduates does not solve many problems faced in the production floor because they do not have adequate and fundamental knowledge about food chemistry and the process dynamics.
The only program that is tailor made for food analysis tasks is offered by the Defense Food Research Laboratory at Mysore which is a 10 month post graduate diploma course for chemistry or biology graduates. Even this program suffers from inadequate exposure of the trainees to modern techniques and instruments as well as the contextual relationship between food composition in general and the various process technologies employed by the industry. Besides they are also not familiar with production floor operations and hands-on training at industrial level. Probably with a little reorientation and expansion of the course, this could be the best bet for the industry. Instead of 10 months the course could be extended to 18 months with a 6 months compulsory factory training in collaboration with the industry. There must be at least two dozen such courses spread across the country to meet the needs of Public Health Laboratories and the QC Laboratories in the industry.
Most important pre-requisite for the success of such a course is the need to put in place a career track for these personnel to climb up the ladder to reach respectable positions in the organizations they serve in the span of 30 years, instead of being branded as chemists for ever. Recognition of the critical role played by these 'sentinels' of food quality will give them satisfaction and motivation to do a job beyond the expectations of the consumers. Long live this tribe!