Our expert scientists are at the heart of everything we do at Mérieux NutriSciences, and they work hard every day to uphold our mission to protect consumers’ health. With that in mind, I recently interviewed Dr. Amy Parks, the Research Project Manager for Specialized Services at the Silliker Food Science Center (FSC), to learn about her background and expertise. She told me about her experience in the food industry, her role at Mérieux NutriSciences and why she enjoys working to ensure food safety and quality. Read on to learn more about Dr. Parks:
Q: Can you describe your role at Mérieux NutriSciences?
A: My current role is Research Project Manager at the FSC, which is a unique lab within our network as we are project-driven. Our scientists at FSC are involved in designing and carrying out specialized studies to support various aspects of the food industry. We have scientists who focus on process validation studies, challenge studies, method validation studies and shelf-life studies. Additionally, the FSC houses molecular testing, such as identification by Vitek MS and 16s Sanger Sequencing, strain characterization by ribotyping and virus testing for both Hepatitis A and Norovirus. While I have primarily focused on Specialized Services, including probiotic, sporeformer and spoilage investigation testing as well as molecular tests, I am starting to train in Process Validation Studies.
Q: What is your background prior to working at Mérieux NutriSciences?
A: I obtained my B.S. from Oklahoma State University and both my M.S. and Ph.D. from Texas Tech University in Food Science. Between my advanced degrees, I spent 5 years in the processed cheese industry as a formulations team leader and a quality assurance team advisor.
Prior to joining Mérieux, I was a post-doctoral research associate at Texas Tech University focusing on validation studies and interventions for the meat and pet food industries.
Q: What drew you to the food industry?
A: I grew up in a farming community in Oklahoma, and I had two science teachers, Mrs. Gurule and Ms. Dillsaver, who really impacted my life and lit the fire for my interest in science. During my time in 4-H and FFA, I had several opportunities to see and experience many different industries, but I wanted to become a veterinary pathologist. When I started at Oklahoma State University, my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Stanley Gilliland, offered me a job in his food microbiology research laboratory as a research assistant. I was fortunate to have received funding for undergraduate food science research projects under his supervision and quickly fell in love with microbiology.
I joined the Food Industry Club and became a student member of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). Once I realized how diverse the food industry was and the number of opportunities available, I was hooked and haven’t looked back since. It’s a neat feeling to know that the cheese we produced in my previous role was feeding America and the work I do now is impacting the global food supply.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?
A: The Specialized Services department offers a wide range of testing, so my days are never quite the same. A typical day could involve calls with clients, helping troubleshoot a spoilage issue, or working to provide accurate, reliable results in the lab. In partnership with bioMérieux, we recently launched Vitek Express, an identification service for the pharmaceutical industry. We are also launching a new strain characterization offering in the very near future. We are using the RiboPrinter technology along with bioNumerics to characterize strains and have the capability to compare strains across facilities, over time, or perform other comparisons that clients are looking for. So we are finalizing the details and looking forward to introducing current and new clients to the service.
Q: What do food manufacturers need to know about food safety testing? Why should they be testing their products?
A: Food producers have a responsibility to provide a safe, wholesome product to their consumers, and I have never met a producer that doesn’t make that a priority. In fact, one of the most impactful moments of my career was listening to an executive for a large food producer talk about the lessons he had learned during an outbreak. I still remember the tears in his eyes when he talked about the experience and how the resulting illnesses and deaths of children affected had left a lasting impact on his life. Food safety related outbreaks and recalls result in loss of consumer confidence, productivity and profits, as well as an increase in downtime and costs associated with recovery of the affected product, potential lawsuits and costs associated with correcting the food safety issue within the facility.
Food companies, whether they are processing a raw product or a complex, Ready-to-Eat meal, should implement a multifaceted approach that includes pathogen testing of their products. Identification of inherent risks associated with the process and implementation of controls to reduce those risks are essential to producing a safe product. Pathogen testing is important to reducing the risk of an outbreak or recall associated with foodborne organisms.
Q: What common questions do you get about our testing services?
A: One of the most common questions I get is related to probiotic testing. As probiotics and probiotic-containing product market segments continue to grow, our clients have the need to enumerate the organisms present in their products to make and confirm their claims. Probiotics are found in a variety of products, including dietary supplements, sports drinks, chocolate, gummies and even pet food! So our clients are looking for information about methods of recovery and enumeration as well as help determining how the organisms survive the manufacturing process.
Another common question is about our identification offerings. Clients want to understand what organisms may be causing their spoilage issues so they can be addressed. In order to do that, we offer Vitek MS (Maldi-TOF identification), 16s Sanger sequencing and Vitek 2 platforms. We can identify bacteria, yeast and molds through Maldi-TOF, sequencing, or biochemical properties of the organisms. I help our clients understand and choose the best option for their needs and if necessary, can work with our consulting group, who can provide on-site help to solve their spoilage issues.
Q: What do you enjoy about working at Mérieux NutriSciences?
A: I really enjoy the diverse group of clients that we work with on a daily basis. Our clients produce a variety of products, so it’s exciting and challenging to get to work with them to assist them with their food safety and quality needs. There are a lot of market segments that we work with, including food producers, personal health care products, veterinary supplies, dietary supplements and pharmaceutical companies. Because we have labs located across the world, I have also had the opportunity to collaborate with them to meet our clients’ needs. The most rewarding part of my job is knowing that the work we do impacts global food safety and quality.
Q: Are you involved in any food industry organizations?
A: Yes! I’m a member of the IFT and the International Association of Food Protection. I’ve held several different positions within the IFT Quality Assurance Division, including Chairperson.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
A: Since we are still fairly “new” to the Chicagoland area, my husband and I enjoy finding new things and areas to explore. We enjoy hiking and trying new foods. We have two dogs, Sadie and Patches, that make sure my days are never boring. I love to read, especially about American history, and have recently begun learning to sew.
Thanks to Dr. Parks for taking the time to answer questions about her role at our Silliker Food Science Center. FSC is equipped with cutting-edge technologies, state-of-the art testing methods and innovative solutions to get your product and process to market faster. Our team of Research Scientists are experienced and ready to handcraft a project geared to meet your current challenge, whether it’s assuring ingredient or product stability, quality or safety. Interested in learning more about our FSC offerings? Download our research services brochure now!
Meet the Author
Social Media Specialist, Mérieux NutriSciences
Paige Krzysko is the Social Media Specialist for Mérieux NutriSciences and, as such, she works with several departments across the organization on their food safety communications. One of her main interests in the food industry is how federal regulations affect food production. She’s worked in communications for six years and earned her Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.