Becoming a Food Inspector: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a food inspector career? Get real job duties, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a food inspector is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Food Inspector

Food inspectors evaluate food products in a variety of settings to ensure public safety and the proper handling of food. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of becoming a food inspector.

Pros of Becoming a Food Inspector
Several career paths from which to choose (agricultural inspector, food science technician and quality control inspector)*
Can get started with just a high school diploma, especially as a quality control inspector*
Population growth and enforcement of food safety regulations will increase need for food inspectors*
A variety of work environments (offices, laboratories, processing plants, farms)*

Cons of Becoming a Food Inspector
Lower-than-average earnings for quality control inspectors and food science technicians ($37,000-$38,000 on average per year as of 2014)*
Unpleasant conditions in processing plants, like excessive noise*
Might test animals before and after slaughter, which may be offensive to some**
Involves long periods of standing and heavy lifting*
May require working evenings, weekends and overtime to meet production deadlines*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **United States Department of Agriculture.

Career Information

Job Description and Career Options

As a food inspector, your job duties will vary depending on which career path you choose. As a quality control inspector, you'll work for a food manufacturer to ensure that manufactured and processed foods don't have the potential to make people sick. You might monitor operations to make sure that they meet production standards, inspect and test foods being processed, reject or accept finished goods and report your inspection data.

Another option is to work as an agricultural inspector. In this position, you'll typically work for a branch of the federal government or a state government. You will generally conduct tests on-site, visiting farms and manufacturing companies to analyze crops, animals and processed foods to test for disease and make sure food suppliers comply with health and safety regulations. Ensuring the equipment used during food production is sanitary may also be part of your duties. You'll report your findings to the government, which will determine whether the farm or manufacturer is fit to produce food.

You could also choose to become an agricultural or food science technician, who analyzes food in a laboratory setting. These professionals collect and prepare samples, test them for the presence of harmful elements and prepare their results in reports. Those who focus on agriculture inspect crops and animals, while those who focus on food science inspect processed foods. You may work in the private sector, or you might monitor regulatory compliance for government agencies, such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Work Setting

While agricultural or food science technicians often work in laboratories, many food inspectors work in food production factories, which can be loud and unpleasant. You may have to wear protective gear, like earplugs and eyewear. You can also expect to be on your feet most of the day.

Salary Info

Your earning potential as a food inspector will also vary by your work settings. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that quality control inspectors earned an average salary of about $38,000 as of 2014, while agricultural and food science technicians earned about $37,000. Agricultural inspectors, on the other hand, earned a higher average salary, at about $44,000 as of the same date.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Training

Since many employers like to train their quality control inspectors on the job, you might enter this career with just a high school diploma. Some college classes in biology and agricultural science could benefit you, especially if you don't have any related work experience, such as in food processing.

On the other hand, if you have an interest in becoming an agricultural or food science technician, you'll need an associate's degree in biological science, animal science or another related area. In these programs, you'll learn through both classroom and hands-on learning situations, such as internships or cooperative-education programs. In some cases, you can get started as a technician with only a high school diploma, though you'll complete lengthy, supervised training that can last more than a year.

To work as a food inspector with the government, you may need to hold a bachelor's degree or have at least one year of experience related to the job. You may also have to pass exams assessing your knowledge of sanitation and food preparation practices.

Top Skills for Food Inspectors

Food inspection can be a demanding job, and you'll need to have stamina and be in good physical condition in order to stand for long periods of time and, in some cases, lift heavy objects. Technical aptitude is also important, specifically for the purposes of reading industrial documents and using quality-testing tools. A strong eye for detail and the ability to think analytically are also important for the food inspection process.

Job Postings From Real Employers

When looking for food inspectors, employers tend to focus heavily on previous work experience in food inspection or food science. Some employers want applicants who have experience working with the types of foods in which the employing farm or factory specializes. Read the following excerpts from real job postings in May 2012 to find out what employers required.

  • A large grocery store chain advertised for a full-time produce inspector at a Maryland location. Applicants needed 2-5 years of experience inspecting products in a fresh warehouse. A college degree was preferred, and knowledge of USDA and hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) compliance standards was required.
  • A fruit company in Kansas sought a full-time quality assurance inspector with 1-2 years of experience in quality inspection within the food science or produce industries. This employer also required strong communication and problem-solving skills, intermediate computer skills and the ability to work in a refrigerated environment.
  • A governmental agriculture department advertised for full-time and intermittent food inspectors to inspect animals before and after slaughter in plants across the nation. Requirements included U.S. citizenship and a passing score on a written test as well as a bachelor's degree or one year of food industry experience.

How Can I Stand Out?

Get Certified

One way to stand out above the competition as a food inspector is to become certified by a professional organization. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) offers a range of certifications for inspectors of various education levels and specializations. For example, the Quality Process Analyst credential is available to inspectors with two years of experience in quality improvement or an associate's degree.

The American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists also offers certification for workers in food and animal science careers with at least bachelor's degrees. In addition, the National Environmental Health Association offers the Certified Professional - Food Safety credential to applicants who have bachelor's degrees in food science or an equivalent combination of education, experience and credentialing.

Other Careers to Consider

Occupational Health and Safety Technician

If you want to ensure safety for the public, but you don't want to work with food, consider becoming an occupational health and safety technician. In this position, you'll collect data concerning health and safety in the workplace, conduct tests and measure hazards to protect workers, the public, property and the environment.

You can generally get started in this career with related work experience and on-the-job training, though some schools offer associate's degree and certificate programs geared toward this profession. Earnings are also higher for these professionals than for food inspectors; as of May 2011, the mean annual wage for occupational health and safety technicians was about $48,000, according to the BLS.

Fire Inspector and Investigator

If you've decided you want to work in inspection, but you want a higher-paying career, consider specializing in fire inspection. As a fire inspector, you'd examine buildings to look for fire hazards and make sure that owners are in compliance with fire codes. You might search the scenes of fires to determine the origins. Requirements for this career often include a high school diploma, applicable experience and completion of a training program after getting hired. The BLS reports that the mean annual wage for fire inspectors and investigators was around $57,000 as of May 2011.

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Johns Hopkins University

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Notre Dame de Namur University

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Lincoln Tech

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American National University

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Tulane University

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Regent University

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