Relevant work experience is the key to a successful career in the increasingly competitive food technology industry

As a food technologist, it is your job to make sure food products are produced safely, legally and are of the quality claimed. You could be involved in developing the manufacturing processes and recipes of food and drink products and may work on existing and newly-discovered ingredients to invent new recipes and concepts.

Technologists modify foods to create products such as fat-free items and ready meals. You will often work closely with the product development teams to help deliver factory-ready recipes based on the development kitchen samples.

Some food technologists are involved in conducting experiments and producing sample products, as well as designing the processes and machinery for making products with a consistent flavour, colour and texture in large quantities. This must be done within a strict and ever-changing regulatory framework around the treatment of foodstuffs. For this reason, you are responsible for keeping up to date with relevant legislation.

The work may involve building relationships with suppliers and customers, as well as ensuring products are profitable.

Responsibilities

The job can vary depending on the type of employer, the area of work, e.g. manufacturing, retail or public sector, and the area of specialism. However, tasks may include:

  • modifying existing products and processes and developing new ones;
  • checking and improving safety and quality control procedures in your own and suppliers' factories, from the raw material stage through to the finished product;
  • researching current consumer markets and latest technologies to develop new product concepts;
  • selecting raw materials and other ingredients from suppliers;
  • preparing product costings based on raw materials and manufacturing costs to ensure profitable products;
  • auditing suppliers or managing internal audits;
  • coordinating launches of new products or running trials alongside or together with product development;
  • dealing with any customer complaint investigations or product issues;
  • compiling, checking and approving product specifications and labelling;
  • undertaking long-term projects with other departments, e.g. reducing waste by improving efficiency;
  • working on packaging innovation and technology.

In food manufacturing, the work may also involve:

  • developing the ability to repeat processes to ensure consistency and safety;
  • liaising with technical and commercial colleagues in procurement, sales, technical services and marketing and distribution, and with official food inspection and hygiene agencies (this takes up a considerable proportion of time on the manufacturing side);
  • working with engineering and production to develop solutions to production issues, while maintaining food safety.

In retailing, additional tasks include:

  • working with suppliers on quality issues and new product ideas;
  • managing the safety, legality and quality of food produced.

In the public sector, the work can involve:

  • carrying out administration and devising policy for government departments;
  • implementing enforcement roles in local authority environmental health departments.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for food technologists are in the region of £20,000 to £26,000.
  • With experience, salaries of £30,000 to £45,000 can be reached. At a senior management level, technologists may earn up to £65,000.

Higher salaries usually bring increased managerial responsibility.

You may be entitled to additional benefits, such as a performance-related bonus, private health plan, pension, company car (depending on the nature of the work) and ongoing professional development opportunities.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours in the retail and public sector are usually 9am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday, possibly with some extra hours. However, shift work is usual in the private sector (for example in factories) up until management level.

Shift work may sometimes be required when running production trials, where auditing hours are according to the site production times. You will need to be flexible but, where time is taken out of hours you will, in most cases, be given the time back.

Part-time work and flexible hours may be available.

What to expect

  • Work is usually carried out in factories but may also take place in an office, laboratory or kitchen.
  • With extensive experience you may find some opportunities in consultancy, but these are limited, as are opportunities for self-employment.
  • Jobs are available in most areas of the country as food manufacturers are found throughout the UK. Retail posts tend to be head-office based, often in London. Larger companies may expect you to work in different locations in the early part of your career. Public sector posts are with government agencies, such as the Food Standards Agency, and in local authorities.
  • Hygiene is very important and the dress code is appropriate to the function, which is normally smart/casual for the office or protective clothing with headwear for laboratory, kitchen and factory work.
  • If you are vegetarian or have strict convictions about permitted foods, you may feel limited about where you can work. However, this is often understood by the industry and, in most cases, work can be managed.
  • Extensive travel within the working day may be required if you work in retail or for a local authority. Travel may be local, national or international and may involve visiting suppliers' factories for audit or sampling purposes, as well as warehouses and distribution centres. Overnight absence from home may be common in some posts.

Qualifications

You will benefit from having a food-related degree for entry into this area of work. The following subjects in particular are relevant:

  • food, nutrition and health;
  • food safety and quality management;
  • food science/technology.

Other relevant science subjects include physical, mathematical, life and medical science. In particular, subjects such as nutrition, microbiology and applied chemistry are helpful.

You can enter this profession with a relevant HND, although having a HND alone, without further study or experience, may restrict your career progression.

Entry without a degree or HND is sometimes possible but this will be at technician level. You may be able to move on to become a food technologist if you gain further qualifications and experience.

If you have an unrelated degree, postgraduate study in areas such as food quality management may significantly increase your chances of entry. Choosing a relevant dissertation in your final year will help to show your enthusiasm and commitment to the role. Search for postgraduate courses in food technology.

A list of universities that offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses in, or related to, food technology is available from the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) - UK Universities.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • a genuine interest in science and how it is applied to food and cookery;
  • high standards of cleanliness and the ability to adhere to strict hygiene rules;
  • excellent attention to detail;
  • strong written and verbal communication skills;
  • leadership qualities;
  • people and teamworking skills;
  • a flexible approach to working;
  • numeracy and problem-solving skills;
  • time management and organisational skills;
  • an awareness of the consumer market.

Work experience

Try to gain as much practical experience as possible.

Work experience in the food manufacturing industry is advantageous. Apply for summer work as a laboratory technician or on the production line in food companies and make sure you network and make contacts while on placement.

Volunteering for projects also provides valuable experience. Technical experience in retail or manufacturing is also valued.

Employers

Food technologists are employed by a range of companies and organisations within the food industry across both the public and private sectors.

Job roles and titles vary widely and there is considerable crossover between the sectors. Typical types of organisation and associated job roles in the main industry sectors include:

  • central government bodies: policy, administration and research;
  • education: teaching in schools,colleges and universities, where lecturers are involved in teaching, training and research;
  • food and drink manufacturing companies: production, quality assurance and product development;
  • food processing and equipment manufacturing organisations: developing new equipment and production methods;
  • local authorities: food inspection, typically in an environmental health department;
  • research associations and technical consultancies: product and materials research, and specialist advice to industry sectors;
  • retailers and supermarket chains: quality assurance, new product development, buying, marketing and packaging.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies commonly handle vacancies. Other useful sources of contacts for speculative applications are directories such as The Grocer Directory of Manufacturers & Suppliers.

Competition is strong for posts with well-known companies and for graduates with non-relevant degrees. Major companies start recruitment in the autumn/spring term of your final year. It is also worthwhile making speculative applications to companies. If you are flexible about location, it will be of benefit when looking for jobs.

Professional development

Some major employers have graduate training schemes. If you have a degree in a different science discipline such as microbiology or biotechnology you will usually get additional training from your employer. Smaller employers may not have formal training schemes but will carry out on-the-job training.

There are various short courses that can be taken throughout your career in areas such as food hygiene or meat safety, or in a specific subject that relates to your role such as advanced baking. Other relevant courses include subjects in science and technology or sales and marketing. Courses may be paid for by employers.

Some food technologists choose to undertake full or part-time postgraduate study in a related area. Courses are offered in areas such as:

  • food biotechnology/bioscience;
  • food chain systems;
  • food production management;
  • food safety/quality management;
  • food science/technology;
  • nutrition and food sciences.

The Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) has a continuing professional development (CPD) scheme, which helps food technologists to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. It gives advice on what can be included as CPD activities and how to plan and record them. For more details see IFST - CPD and Learning.

If you would like to move into food inspection (e.g. working in a local authority environmental health department), there are a number of courses that are accredited through the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH).

If you are interested in the food standards element of the work, you can find course information through the Trading Standards Institute (TSI).

Career prospects

In larger organisations, promotion is to more senior technologist posts with greater management responsibility for staff and resources, eventually leading to management posts with strategic responsibility for related areas. A typical career path might be:

  • development technologist;
  • senior development technologist;
  • project leader (lead food technologist);
  • new product development manager.

Alternatively you could specialise in a particular area, such as quality or process management.

It is also possible for you to move to other business areas, such as technology, business development or sales, where specialist knowledge will be a real advantage.

While larger companies offer more opportunity for cross-functional moves, small and medium-sized companies generally offer greater responsibility earlier in your career and the chance to gain skills and experience across a range of business areas quickly.

To gain promotion or to increase salary level, you may find it necessary to move between employers. In some cases, this may require relocation.

The IFST provides a route for professional recognition as a Chartered Scientist (CSci) for appropriately qualified members. For full details see IFST - Chartered Scientist.