Penn State helps to develop food safety training program in Armenia

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A program developed by Penn State food scientists is training students in Armenia on food safety practices and procedures, with an eye toward improving the safety of the country's food supply chain — from crop production and processing to packaging, handling, marketing and consumption.

Catherine Cutter, professor of food science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and Siroj Pokharel, postdoctoral researcher in food science, partnered with Virginia Tech to bring the Food Safety Systems Management Professional Certificate Program to the Agribusiness Teaching Center at the International Center for Agribusiness Research and Education in Yerevan, Armenia.

Thirty seniors studying business at the Agribusiness Teaching Center, which is affiliated with the Armenian National Agrarian University, recently completed an intensive four-week course that included lectures, laboratory work, experiments and field trips to nearby facilities to observe food safety concepts in practice.

Cutter and Pokharel traveled to Armenia for several weeks in January and February to administer the certification program. Cutter previously had visited in September 2015 to begin planning the course, which took about two years to come to fruition.

"It was very busy, and the students had a lot to learn in a short amount of time," said Cutter, who also is Penn State Extension's assistant director for food safety and quality programs. "I was impressed with how well they all did. We were able to cover a lot of the food safety programming that is offered through Penn State's food safety certification programs in a condensed, but effective, way."

The certification program contained six modules: introduction to food science, food microbiology, sanitation, thermal processing and acidification of foods, hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP), and food defense. Participants earned certificates at the completion of each module before receiving their food safety certification upon finishing the full program. 

Each week's study concluded with a field trip to observe how concepts the students had learned were being implemented at local food production facilities. The students visited Armenia Wine, Noyan Juice, Marianna Dairy, and the Biella Meat processing facilities. The field trips demonstrated proper safety measures for processes from production to canning, boxing and packaging of food and beverages.

Graduates with training and hands-on experience in food science and safety are a desirable commodity in Armenia, where education may skew toward the theoretical, according to Cutter. "It is beneficial to the food and supply-chain industry to have knowledge of the practical application of these concepts," she said.

"With this program, we were able to develop modules, laboratory activities, break-out sessions and projects that can be replicated and reused, as well as training future instructors," she continued. "I hope to return to Armenia in the near future, likely in the fall, to observe the next offering of this program with the new instructors. Long-term, we hope it provides a sustainable model to train future food science and safety professionals in Armenia and introduce them into the local workforce."

The Penn State scientists are preparing a research paper that will assess the knowledge, behavior, attitude and skills of participants related to food safety before and after completing the certification program. They also hope to use the project as a template for similar efforts in other countries that could benefit from such a program.

Cutter and Pokharel became involved with the project after a request for qualified food safety educators in Armenia came via the Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education program, or InnovATE, a USAID-funded initiative administered by Virginia Tech in collaboration with Penn State, Tuskegee University, and the University of Florida. InnovATE's project in Armenia plays an important role in the development of the country's International Center for Agribusiness Research and Education and in the improvement of the Armenian agricultural training and education system.

"Cathy's project is a great example of the impact that Penn State can have around the world," said Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "The value of practical training and the application of research principles have such enormous value for global agriculture and food systems."

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Last Updated February 17, 2017