Microbiology and Food Quality Control: What Students Should Know

food technology courses

Have you ever wondered how experts determine the precise, scientific degree of a food product’s safety? It’s all about microbiology. Tiny microbes in food products can tell you a great deal about that food product’s bacterial makeup, and whether or not it’s conducive to safe consumption.

If you choose to work in the food technology and food safety field, you’ll learn to examine food products and ingredients for the microscopic flaws that can put consumers at risk. Food quality control professionals are employed throughout the modern food supply chain to detect spoilage and determine germ content, minimizing contamination risks and preventing foodborne illness outbreaks.

Here is your guide to the basics of food microbiology and how you’ll use it to protect consumers in your community:

Microbiology 101 for Food Quality Control Students

The Government of Canada requires food safety professionals to consistently test samples of domestic and imported food products every year.

“They monitor the level of microbiological contamination in the food supply,” states the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “Testing is done for a variety of high risk pathogens, including E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Shigella.”

Examining the microbiological activity of a food product helps food quality assurance pros guard Canadians against these kinds of foodborne diseases. By catching live organisms (unhealthy bacteria or pathogens) in the early stages of food distribution, the food can be prevented from being ingested and infecting the gastrointestinal tracts of its consumers. For this reason, understanding food microbiology will be a key part of your food quality training.

A student conducting microbiological tests in a quality control lab.

A student conducting microbiological tests in a quality control lab.

Microbiological Factors Putting Food Quality Control at Risk

Food quality control professionals know that certain external factors can raise the risk of a food’s contamination—like temperature, humidity, and exposure to Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide. But at the microbiological level, internal factors can alter a food’s internal makeup too.

For example, a food’s own pH level can change its bacterial content and potential for bacterial growth. A neutral pH level offers an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive in food, whereas a low pH can protect foods from bacterial attack.

Similarly, a food’s given moisture content can promote bacterial growth. Think of fruit: a juicy peach has a short shelf life before it begins to grow moldy. That’s why many food purveyors choose to dry foods in order to preserve them, or can them with salt or sugar for a controlled-moisture environment.
Even a food’s own physical structure can make it vulnerable to oxidization and contamination: ground foods, like ground beef, have more surface area for microbes to attach to and move throughout.

These intrinsic factors are why some foods are at higher-risk for microbial and bacterial contamination than others. In your hands-on food technology courses and lab lessons, you can dive deeper into food chemistry and get to precisely what to look for when conducting quality control tests and ensuring food safety is up to scratch.

Food safety professionals can use microbiology to detect bacteria like salmonella (pictured).

Food safety professionals can use microbiology to detect bacteria like salmonella (pictured).

Fermentation & Probiotics: Recognizing Healthy Microbiological Activity

Not all microbiological activity is dangerous—on the contrary, some bacterial growth in certain food products is healthy and necessary.

“Good bacteria, such as probiotics, are becoming increasingly important in food science,” writes food scientist Gerald Tannock. “In addition, microorganisms are essential for the production of foods such as cheese, yogurt, bread, beer, wine and, other fermented foods.”

Probiotic bacteria can also kill and inhibit pathogens, helping fermented foods guard themselves against other microorganisms and extending the foods’ shelf life.

This kind of food science knowledge can help you on your way to a food technology and safety career of your own!

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