Food Science student finds purpose in quality
By Hannah Walker
Titratable acidity, standard operating procedures, microbiology, spoilage, color, texture. These are the thoughts that run through Erin Sukala’s mind whenever she monitors production quality on the floor of food production facilities.
The senior food science major from Auburn, Indiana, has discovered a passion for food safety, quality assurance, and making an impact.
“I really fell in love with the essentialness of not only food science, but agriculture,” she said. “And I love the idea of making an impact in the world.”
And Sukala is making an impact in the world of food science. She may not have the answer to world hunger, but the work she is doing has already improved operations in food production.
When Sukala interned one summer with Red Gold, a tomato processing company, one of her tasks was to update 18 of the company’s standard operating procedures. In the world of food processing, these procedures are vital. They ensure that production is uniform across all plants and that the product is of the highest possible quality and consistency.
“That made me feel accomplished, and I was able to learn a lot about a lot of different tests that I would learn about later in a food analysis course,” Sukala recalled.
Although she is already making an impact, Sukala has even bigger dreams for the food industry — an industry that can use lots of water and other resources. By staying current with ways to improve operating procedures, Sukala said she hopes to make an even greater impact.
“I think we can hopefully implement methods that are more efficient and more sustainable,” Sukala said.
She will get her chance to implement some of those methods when she starts her new role with Hormel Foods after graduation. It’s a job comes with lots of challenges and responsibilities.
“I’m the person on the production plant floor making sure the processes are going well, that the food is meeting the company standards, and that it’s safe,” Sukala explained.
The majority of her work will be on the production floor ensuring that the products meet quality and food safety standards. She’ll also be responsible for making sure that their operation meets proper sanitation levels. In this role, she will be leading, directing, and training quality assurance technicians.”
“As a supervisor, it will be my job to communicate the science behind food quality and the steps in quality testing and other tasks regardless of people’s background in or outside of food production,” she said.
Luckily, Sukala said her time at Purdue taught her how to communicate with others and to lead.
“I’ve learned that motivation is a super big factor in being successful,” she said. “I know in my future job, it’s going to be really important to make sure that people understand the importance and the incentive with each task.”
Sukala understands the importance of her work and you can feel her passion when you speak to her. Her eyes light up and she could talk to you all day about microbiological tests and shelf stability. But her work goes beyond just talk. Her work is highly motivated by her desire to help people in a hands-on manner.
“I really like to be hands-on and work in an environment where I get to interact with a lot of different people. I really don’t like sitting at like a desk or being in a lab by myself all the time,” she admitted.
The Purdue Food Science Pilot Plant has been an outlet for Sukala’s need for hands-on work. An important component of food production is food safety regulations. Sukala said she learned about these regulations while working at the pilot plant.
“I got to sit in on some FDA workshops, so that allowed for networking with different people,” she said. “But I also got to hear some of the unique stories that FDA inspectors have experienced on their jobs, which I thought was fascinating.”
Though her first love is working on the production floor, Sukala loves all things quality assurance and could see herself working in government regulation one day. She feels like it’s important to get more hands-on, production experience before entering regulatory work.
“I did not feel confident enough to become an FDA inspector and suddenly tell companies what to do when I haven’t done or experienced food production fully myself,” she said.
Either way, Sukala has found her passion during her time in Purdue Agriculture and is living it out each day.
In her classes, her work at the pilot plant, her conversations with peers, and her involvement on campus: her love for food safety and quality is evident.
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