The next time you take an in-flight meal, spare a thought for the people who have put so much time and commitment into making sure that what you are served meets the very highest standards of food hygiene. Immense efforts are made during the process of preparation, testing and packaging to ensure you arrive at your destination both well-fed and healthy.
One of the unsung heroes making this possible is Flora Wai. As operations manager of LSG Catering Hong Kong Ltd, which specialises in catering for airlines and for institutions, Ms Wai oversees an operation in which standards are strictly maintained. "There is no compromise on food hygiene. Quality takes precedence over all other considerations in the catering industry," she says.
This insistence on the importance of food quality stems from her academic background and early career. With a BSc in Food Science from the University of British Columbia, Ms Wai's first job was as a microbiologist in a laboratory testing food samples for micro-organisms that might threaten health.
In 1999, she returned to Hong Kong and joined her present company in a quality assurance capacity. "My job was to ensure food quality. My concern as the 'internal health inspector' was very focused on hygiene at all costs," she explains.
"Quality takes precedence over all other considerations in the catering industry"
After nearly two years, she became operations manager and took on responsibility for a much wider range of issues. "For one thing, chefs and the quality inspector are inherently at odds," she notes. "Chefs have their priorities and concerns; sometimes hygiene is not top of their list. The quality inspector, though, has to keep them on track and ensure they take every necessary step to reach the highest standards of hygiene."
Her current role entails observing things from a broader perspective. "I need to consider everything including purchasing, operations and delivery," Ms Wai says. "The business side of the operation and customer service are also very important."
To help her rise to managerial level, Ms Wai took an MBA at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, graduating last year. "The MBA studies gave me a much better understanding of finance, accounting and marketing, all of which are necessary skills for the business decisions which my new role requires," she says.
Ms Wai doubles as food scientist and manager. "As a food scientist, I can directly apply my studies to my work in quality assurance, but the exposure is relatively limited," she notes. "As a manager, though, I get to interact with a wider spectrum of other professionals, customers and colleagues. I enjoy the challenge of balancing the different interests of so many people."
More career options
For food science graduates there are various career options. "Quite a number of locally trained food scientists find jobs in food manufacturing businesses," Ms Wai explains. "With many of the factories located on the mainland, travel is part of the job." In addition, growing awareness of food hygiene, heightened by the recent SARS and bird flu outbreaks, has generated more opportunities in the field.
Some graduates choose to stay in academia. "In the past, research into food science was not such a popular pursuit but prospects are now much more promising. Also, teaching posts are available at universities and the Vocational Training Council," Ms Wai adds.
Food scientists, dieticians and nutritionists are quite closely related though their job focus differs. The former are more concerned with food safety and hygiene aspects plus establishing quality management systems. The other two professions focus mainly on human applications on a daily and often an individual basis and practitioners are sought after by hospitals and sports organisations.
Ultimately, food science is not a rigid discipline. A human touch is needed and sensitivity to different people's needs and preferences. "Not in the physical sense, because we obviously try to avoid touching the food, but in the figurative sense!" Ms Wai says. "Your heart must be in it."
Opportunities abound on the mainland for food scientists. The Chinese government has a very comprehensive set of rules and regulations pertaining to food hygiene but, unfortunately, its execution still leaves much to be desired.
The challenge for Hong Kong people with a food science background is to educate those on the mainland who have not yet acquired the necessary mindset about food quality standards. Apart from Chinese enterprises, international food and beverage corporations also need food scientists to be their quality "gatekeepers".
Well-established multinationals are ready to offer salaries comparable to those in Hong Kong for people experienced in quality assurance systems or in management positions. However, local staff generally fill junior posts and remuneration is considerably lower than in corresponding positions in Hong Kong.