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Graduate students get a taste for food industry during whirlwind interterm tours

January 13, 2012
Food science students are treated to a product tasting during an industry tour of Firmenich this week. Standing fourth from right is program alumna Sue Polen  (M.S. '04), plant manager at Firmenich.

Food science students are treated to a product tasting during an industry tour of Firmenich this week. Standing fourth from right is program alumna Sue Polen (M.S. '04), plant manager at Firmenich.

The students’ noses twitched in the air. They sniffed. Sugary, yes. But some subtle fruitiness, too. They inhaled again and contemplated a moment. Then one student nailed it. “Sherbet!”

Not that there was a single drop of the sweet stuff to be found Wednesday afternoon in the processing rooms of Firmenich, the largest privately-owned company in the perfume and flavor industry. The Firmenich plant in nearby Anaheim makes many of the flavor enhancers that give food and candy its punch and is just one of nearly 20 pit stops in a graduate level food science industry study tour offered during interterm. Over the course of two weeks, students explore the science and inner workings of local companies that process everything from tuna to salsa.

On Wednesday morning, the students were just starting Day 3 of their tours, but they already had visited an organic food distributor, an industrial bakery, a snack food company, a maker of gourmet Italian food products and a manufacturer of natural-food frozen entrées. The variety was proving enlightening, said student Amber Skaretka (M.S.), a New York native.

“You learn more about the industry and you can get an idea of what kinds of places there are where you might work. It’s not like we’re just seeing one or two companies,” Skaretka said.

The tour course is an interterm tradition popular with students enrolled in the master of science in food science program offered by the Schmid College of Science and Technology, said Professor Anu Prakash, Ph.D., who’s teaching the class this term. The goal is to immerse the students in the industry so they can see how course work relates to what they’ll face on the job. Students research each company before visiting and arrive armed with notebooks and sharp questions, many of them about chilling, cooking and cooling temperatures, the crux of many food safety issues they’re studying.

“We want to remove the mystery from what the food industry’s like,” Dr. Prakash said.

An extra bonus on Wednesday’s tours was an opportunity to meet Chapman food science alumni at two of the three sites visited. At Firmenich, students were welcomed by Sue Polen (M.S. ’04), plant manager, and Jennifer Kordiolis ’99, pilot plant planner. At Bumble Bee Foods in Santa Fe Springs, production manager Liliana Soto ’01 led students through the final tour of the day, a pungent walk that showed what it takes to move tons of fish from freezers to 40,000 cases of final product each day.

As the sun set, students piled into university vans, quietly snacking on sample snack chips given them the previous day. They seemed almost too tired to talk or think ahead to the paper they would write at the conclusion of grand food tour. Friday’s timetable should cure that. On the schedule? Gavina Gourmet Coffee.

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