In Food Industry, PEs Deliver

June 2009

In Food Industry, PEs Deliver

PEs are playing an important role in ensuring that the nation's supermarkets are stocked with food that is high quality, tasty, and safe.


Whether it's a desire to have access to the freshest produce in a supermarket or the best grade of meat served up in a restaurant, American families and foodies of all persuasions want their meals to be of the highest quality, convenient, and—most importantly—safe. Meeting all of these demands doesn't come easily. Within the food industry, and often behind the scenes, professional engineers are playing significant roles to help produce superior products.

"As soon as the food leaves the farm gate to the time that it reaches the consumer's plate, all of the processes that go on, whether it's to extend the shelf life, making sure the food is safe for consumption or the packaging of the food, all of these processes are in the realm of food engineering," says R. Paul Singh, a food engineering professor at the University of California at Davis.

Singh says that media coverage of recent food contamination outbreaks only demonstrates how important it is to have engineers involved in the food industry. "When there is contamination, there is some part of the chain or process that needs to be carefully reexamined," says Singh, editor of the Journal of Food Engineering and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. "Food engineers play an important role because within the processing plant, the hygienic designs of the operation require good engineering design."

There are other key issues that engineers in the industry are responsible for beyond safety, says Singh. "They also have to make sure that the food is nutritious and that food is plentiful and something that can be purchased at reasonable prices," he says.

Singh says that over the years, the changes in American culture and consumer habits have shifted the focus within the food industry. More people in the U.S., particularly families, are looking for convenient foods to prepare that also appeal to all of their senses. This change in consumer habits and increased demand on the food industry (because it handles larger product volumes than other industries) poses a significant challenge to engineers. For example, when an engineer is looking at a way to preserve food through heating, he or she has to ensure that the heating process is efficient, but also to make sure that the nutrients, the color, the flavor, and the texture of the food are not adversely affected, explains Singh.

Passion for the Job
NSPE Member Ronald Luedeman, P.E., chose to work in the food industry because he wanted to meld his love for engineering with his love for agriculture. He serves as a senior consulting engineer for Basic American Foods, a Blackfoot, Idaho, firm that specializes in manufacturing dehydrated potato and bean products.

His job goes beyond just simply making sure that the product tastes and looks good. "Food safety is critical," says Luedeman, who has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and a master's in food science. "That's one of the first building blocks in developing and manufacturing food products. Making sure that the firm is being environmentally friendly is also very important."

NSPE member Jonathan Jett-Parmer, P.E., has worked for Unilever since 1992. The company produces products such as Ragu pasta sauces, Hellmann's mayonnaise, and WishBone salad dressings. He realizes that the general public doesn't really think of engineers when it comes to food. "I think people view food production as either being conducted by a mom-and-pop-type business in the neighborhood or a faceless corporation and forget that most of the people involved in food production are typically trained engineers and food scientists," says Jett-Parmer, who serves as the Atlanta factory's supply leader and assists with management of a factory in Trinidad.

Quality Control
Jett-Parmer's experiences at Unilever have been diverse and given him the opportunity to use his engineering expertise to the fullest. His first position with the company allowed him to participate in a four-year $20 million renovation and process improvement project of its Baltimore facility. The renovation changed the factory from a 1960s era dairy facility to a modernized 1990s food processing factory.

In 1998, Jett-Parmer took a position at the firm's Lipton Tea facility in Suffolk, Virginia. The factory is one of the largest in the world and produces more than six billion tea bags a year, he says. During his tenure, Unilever made significant upgrades to the factory, including consolidating the company's West Coast facility into that factory. Lipton also added an herbal tea line, which requires special treatment. "Some people may think of tea as a rather benign product, but we have to treat it with a great amount of sensitivity," he says. "If you don't handle tea properly, it can develop different molds or you'll have tea that isn't up to standard. Tea is more akin to wine in terms of how you make it."

A great deal of Jett-Parmer's job involved a form of qualifications-based selection in an effort to maintain the integrity of the product. "We had a qualified tea taster at the facility, and we were careful about how we sourced our materials," he says. "And there were often vendors that did not make the cut and as cost-effective as their price may have appeared, the quality of our tea is not something that we are willing to bargain with."

Jett-Parmer says that food safety concerns affect his work on a daily basis. When addressing the issues of product quality and safety, he looks at it from a three-legged stool perspective. "We've got software, hardware, and mindware that we have to manage and make sure that all three are functioning correctly. The software involves the specifications, procedures, and technical reports that we exchange with our vendors and among our factories to make the product of our recipes. The hardware side is making sure that all of our equipment is maintained at certain standards and we must continue to reinvest to deal with potential vulnerabilities and further protect our products from adulteration or contamination. The hardest piece is that mindware piece because I'm responsible for making sure that every person on the site understands his or her role."

Storage Space
There is more to the food industry than just dealing with the consistency of food recipe. Many professional engineers are involved with creating environments that provide sensitive and safe storage and top-rate processing of produce.

NSPE member Richard Wiltanger, P.E., founded Food Engineering Inc. in 1976 with his business partner Richard Thomson, P.E. The Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, consulting firm specializes in coordinated civil, structural, industrial, electrical, mechanical, refrigeration, low-temperature envelope, and food processing design services.

Wiltanger, who has a background in civil engineering, says that when it comes to keeping foods safe in processing plants, he has to consider standards from the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration in addition to proper design and use of ventilation systems and refrigeration systems. "You have to carefully watch the environment within those warehouses and how the [produce] gets delivered to our grocery stores and the temperatures that have to be maintained," says Wiltanger. "For example, if you deal with wet products like lettuce and leafy vegetables, they have a different temperature environment than other produce. You also have to watch tomatoes, potatoes, and yams."

Olga Osipova, P.E., believes that the food manufacturing and processing industry offers engineers the opportunity to be multifaceted. The NSPE member serves as a vice president for Food Pro International, a California firm that offers several services including project management, facility design, equipment layout, feasibility studies, waste management, and site selection analysis. "If you are a mechanical engineer or an electrical engineer, you have to think beyond your discipline," says Osipova, who has a mechanical engineering background. "There are so many pieces in food processing plants that depend on each other, and you need to be able to see the whole picture and what's involved when you plan one thing and how it will affect other things."

One of the challenges that she faces in the industry is working with the processors that have time-sensitive projects and need services performed on a fast-track basis. Many of the food processing plants that are involved in packing, canning, and freezing produce are seasonal and have a small window of opportunity to implement projects in the off-season, which can be anywhere from three to nine months. "Usually with a large expansion of a facility, you have to be able to work around existing operations without jeopardizing safety of the personnel or affecting the quality of the product," she says.

Is the food industry recession-proof? Jett-Parmer says there are some concerns about the economy, but generally the foods industry is very resilient in tough economic times. "People tend to eat out less and they cook at home more, which is beneficial to the sales of our products," he says. "We are a business built around brands that people trust. Whether it's the Breyer's ice cream, our Country Crock margarine, or Ben & Jerry's, these are products that people stick to in tough times to satisfy and comfort."

Singh, who has taught at UC Davis for nearly 35 years, says there is a high demand for food engineers, and students in his program get picked up by the industries often before they graduate. "Food engineers just by their training are well versed in both engineering and food science," he says. "That makes them very special in the industry because when they work in teams they can understand what a microbiologist is talking about and they know engineering."

Jett-Parmer says that Unilever is consistently trying to reach out and get good technical talent. He actively recruits chemical, mechanical, and industrial engineers. "Technical leadership in the complex business of food is crucial. Most of our senior leaders are engineers because Unilever values that technical knowledge," he says. "I can train an engineer to be a good business leader, but I can't always do the reverse."

A PE license is not generally required in the industry, but a few experiences have shown Jett-Parmer just how valuable a license can be in certain business situations. When the Lipton factory was involved with a program with a sister factory in India, the Indian government required that a licensed engineer sign off that the equipment and technology imported from the U.S. was up to standard. "Since I was a PE on staff, the company was able to leverage that and move expeditiously," he recalls. "It was refreshing because they respected that credential even across borders. When working with contractors and vendors, my knowledge and experience carry more weight and remind them that I am a fully-qualified professional."


The Fruits of Labor


Jim Brandeberry, P.E., (right) prepares grapes to make wine at his new business venture Brandeberry Winery in Enon, Ohio.

Some engineers may not spend their entire careers in the food industry, but they can take a hobby involving food or beverage and turn it into a business venture.


After years of receiving rave reviews and winning 60 medals for his homemade wines, Jim Brandeberry, P.E., decided to try turning his hobby into a business. He recently opened Brandeberry Winery in Enon, Ohio. "You can't sell amateur wine, but you can make up to 200 gallons a year for your own personal use," says Brandeberry, who retired in 2005 as dean of Wright State University's College of Engineering and Computer Science. "I've been doing that and giving it away at parties for several years now."

Brandeberry, who goes by the nickname "Li'l Olde Winemaker," built a 2,400 square-foot facility, including a tasting room and space for wine making, about 25 feet away from the home that he shares with his wife. When he received his license last fall to sell wine, he started to make 1,500 gallons of wine, which will produce 7,500 bottles. His vineyard currently grows Vidal, Cayuga, and Seyval grapes. The wine varietals include Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Vidal, Cayuga, Seyval, Cherry, and Blackberry. "It turns out that an awful lot of engineers end up as winemakers," says Brandeberry. "I have met quite a few people who have wineries who were engineers in their previous life."

Brandeberry has is own theory as to why he and other engineers are attracted to vinification. "There's a fair amount of science in winemaking, but there's also a certain amount of skill and art, just as in engineering," he says. "You get to use your creativity and be able to apply it in a practical application."

Brandeberry has no plans to live off of revenue earned from his winery but to share the fruits of his labor, which include the popular "Pink Passion" sweet wine. "My idea of success is that I have fun and enjoy doing this," he says.