When we’re stuffing food in our mouths, rarely do we think about whether or not it’s actually safe to eat. There’s a certain level of assumption that “somebody” already made sure our food is up to par and ready to be consumed. And it’s true—there are people whose job it is to ensure that what we eat meets certain basic safety standards. Those people are called Agricultural Products Inspectors!
Agricultural Products Inspectors visit facilities where food is produced and packaged. They conduct thorough inspections and ensure that workers and business processes follow strict food-related safety and grading guidelines. When a product or process fails to align with compliance standards, inspectors help the business understand the issue so they can rectify the problem quickly and work can continue. They inspect everything from meat, dairy, poultry, and fish to fruits, vegetables, grains, and even tobacco, testing for quality assurance and signs of contamination, disease, or pests. Agricultural Products Inspectors may also issue “grades” to products or ingredients based on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards.
- Keeping consumers safe from potential exposure to harmful germs or substances in their food
- Helping producers and packagers comply with complex standards so they can stay in business and keep food supplies flowing
- Working in an industry that’s feeding society
- Agricultural Products Inspectors work full-time in various settings, from labs, farms, and livestock areas to packaging and warehouse sites. Lengthy travel is often required, and sometimes they must work nights or stay overnight in an area that’s far from their home.
- Review business practices against Good Manufacturing Practice standards
- Inspect agricultural commodities such as “cereals, coffee beans, sugar, palm oil, eggs, milk, fruits, vegetables, beef, cotton, and rubber” to verify they are safe for consumption or other use by public consumers
- Assess and enforce compliance with federal and state health and safety guidelines
- Examine products to ensure accurate labeling of weights, dimensions, quality, grade, and other descriptors; utilize measuring tools such as scales and calipers
- Closely review preparation and packaging processes
- Work with producers to create or adjust production standards related to meat, poultry, fish, and various ingredients
- Work with USDA Produce Inspectors, as needed
- Choose samples to inspect for quality, general appearance, and overall condition
- Create reports based on findings; suggest corrective actions when needed, and conduct follow-ups to measure if correction actions resolved the issue
- Work with technicians to discuss food ratings or recommendations; prepares draft certificates
- Conduct field experiments or offer guidance to farmers and workers related to growing crops, managing animal safety and health, safe handling of food and hazardous or unsanitary materials
- Analyze soil and animal genetics
- Share observations and recommendations with stakeholders
- Do spot checks of raw items and fresh produce upon delivery to warehouses or groceries stores; confirm suitable temperatures of storage cooling areas
- Assess suggested expiration dates to determine if the appropriate shelf life is being considered
- Attention to detail
- Business acumen
- Critical thinking
- Physical stamina
- Familiarity with biotechnology, advanced farming/packaging practices, crop and soil science, meteorology, crop physiology, propagation, and husbandry
- Familiarity with food production and food quality assurance
- Knowledge of arithmetic, statistics, biology, basic chemistry, and physical/chemical analysis
- Knowledge of data mining and model building
- Knowledge of FDA and USDA guidelines
- Knowledge of government regulatory documentation related to agriculture, packaging, handling, distributing
- Knowledge of tools and equipment for testing agricultural products
- Understanding of food poisoning, food-related disease control, antimicrobial resistance, and common foodborne germs (i.e., Norovirus, Salmonella, C. perfringens, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, toxoplasma gondii, E. coli, C. botulinum, listeria, and others
- Understanding of job site sanitation and safety practices
- Farms and crop production and processing facilities
- Private research and development facilities
- Local, state, and federal government agencies
- Wholesale trade companies
Agricultural Products Inspectors often have busy schedules and may travel frequently. They have to be extremely familiar with all applicable laws and guidelines, and ready to enforce them during inspections (but with the goal of helping businesses stay in compliance so they can keep producing food). While most businesses understand the need for compliance, there may be times when employers get frustrated or even hostile, so inspectors need patience and persuasive skills.
Most of the time, Agricultural Products Inspectors will work in relatively comfortable areas, but there can also be long periods of standing, walking around, or driving long distances. They sometimes work outside around animals or crops in the heat or cold, or inside where they may be exposed to cold storage rooms, loud machinery, fumes, dust, chemicals, or unpleasant elements requiring the wear of personal protective equipment.
The Covid pandemic of recent years has negatively impacted the global food industry and changed the way workers have to perform duties in order to prevent the spread of highly transmissible germs. There’s also been an array of supply chain problems causing unusual disruptions in shipments, which can cause food items to spoil en route to their destinations. In 2022, an alarming 70% of food retailers claimed that “supply chain disruptions are negatively impacting their business, up from 42% the year before.”
Meanwhile, the agriculture industry has faced unprecedented issues due to climate factors that continue to affect crops and overall food quality. Scientists offer solutions “in the form of science-based farming practices—that can buffer farmers from climate damage and help make their operations more resilient and sustainable for the long term.”
Agricultural Products Inspectors are analytical and compliance-oriented, which are traits they may have carried over from childhood. They may have been sticklers for having a tidy room or keeping things well-organized. In school, they might have excelled in math, science, or chemistry—or simply been interested in agriculture and where the food we eat comes from! They tend to be pragmatic and inquisitive individuals who care deeply about their work and want to do things by the book!
- Some Agricultural Product Inspectors get started with a high school diploma or GED along with sufficient relevant work experience (such as in food processing or packaging)
- Another way to get into the field is by earning either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree with a suitable major. Common majors include agricultural science, agricultural business, animal science, and biology
- Note: Sources vary about the typical level of education needed to get started. Some sites, like OwlGuru, suggest that most inspectors get hired with a high school diploma. However, Zippia notes that only 10% of workers in this field have just a high school diploma, while 16% have an associate’s, 64% hold a bachelor’s, and 7% have a master’s. 3% have “other degrees”
- Having a bachelor’s or higher may make you more competitive for better-paying jobs
- Agricultural Product Inspectors will receive a certain amount of On-the-Job training to ensure familiarity with rules and regulations related to their specific positions. Duties can vary from one employer to the next!
- Depending on your degree major, common courses may include:
- Agricultural chemicals
- Agricultural economics
- Agricultural law
- Agriculture industry
- Animal health
- Crop production
- Dairy business
- Livestock production
- Plant and animal science
- Sanitation procedures
- Educational programs often feature internships or cooperative education opportunities. Students are highly encouraged to take advantage of these!
- A driver’s license is needed so inspectors can travel to facilities where they will conduct inspections
- Decide if you’ll attend a program on-campus, online, or via a hybrid method (i.e., a mix of both)
- Look for programs that feature ag-related internships or co-op experiences
- Research which schools offer scholarships or tuition discounts to help offset your out-of-pocket costs!
- In high school, students should dive into chemistry, biology, and math classes
- Enroll in any ag-related school programs or activities, such as 4-H
- Apply to state or federal agriculture programs like USDA’s AgLab or summer programs such as AgDiscovery
- Check out USDA’s For Students site for more opportunities!
- Apply for part-time jobs, internships, or apprenticeships where you can gain real-world experience on farms, food warehouses, packaging centers, or grocery store produce or meat/deli sections
- Reach out to working Agricultural Products Inspectors to request an informational interview. See if you can shadow them on the job for a day!
- Watch YouTube videos about inspection work (for example, Michigan Department of Agriculture’s Produce Safety Inspection for Farm Owners)
- Check out job postings ahead of time to learn about common qualifications needed. For example, a recent entry-level job ad lists the following qualifications:
- Applicants must have education, training and/or experience demonstrating competence in each of the following areas:
- Knowledge of inspecting agricultural commodities such as poultry, eggs, or fruits and vegetables.
- Knowledge of math such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, or decimals.
- Knowledge of record keeping.
- Knowledge of applying laws, rules, regulations, standards, policies and procedures.
- Knowledge of using an automated information system to enter, update, modify, delete, retrieve/inquire and report on data.
- Possession of a valid Driver's License (not suspended, revoked or canceled, or disqualified from driving).
- Applicants must have education, training and/or experience demonstrating competence in each of the following areas:
- Sources vary about the level of education needed to get started, but a high school diploma or GED is the minimum. An associate’s or bachelor’s should significantly boost your credentials against the competition, especially if you major in agricultural science, agricultural business, animal science, or biology
- Having related work experience will help make you more competitive, for example working on a farm, food processing or packaging facility, or even a grocery store or restaurant! If you don’t have much experience, then be open to taking part-time gigs, seasonal work, or internships. These will beef up your resume!
- Agricultural Products Inspectors often work for the state or federal government, so check out job portals like Indeed.com, but also the USDA Careers page, FDA’s job and training page, and USAJOBS
- Some federal ag jobs require taking a Civil Service Exam, such as Agricultural Commodity Graders. Those positions may be good entry points from which you can later work your way into inspector jobs
- If you want to gain private industry experience before applying as a state or federal-level inspector, check out these ag-related job boards:
- Landing a job as an Agricultural Products Inspector is easier if you have some social capital connections in the industry. Reach out to anyone you’ve worked with previously in an ag-related job or internship, as well as your college instructors or program managers
- Review Agricultural Products Inspector resume templates and be sure your bullet points feature dollar amounts and stats, and are impact-driven
- Federal jobs may require a federal resume format
- Talk to previous supervisors or teachers and ask if they’re willing to serve as personal references. Get their permission first before giving listing them as contacts
- Familiarize yourself with FDA and USDA terminology that you can use during interviews
- Inspectors must have the right mix of compliance orientation and persuasion. The goal is to help businesses comply, not punish them for making mistakes. To climb the ladder you’ll need to hone your skills in both areas
- Be proactive about keeping up with industry changes, including updates to USDA, FDA, and other agency regulations
- Talk to your supervisor about advancement opportunities. Ask if there are courses, certifications, or advanced degrees that will help make you a stronger asset and qualify you for promotions
- Set the bar high and hold companies accountable, but with the mindset that you’re there to help them improve so they can keep producing safe food products for consumers
- Always put safety first and set an example for others to follow! Wear personal protective clothing, masks, gloves, or whatever gear you need to comply with OSHA, CDC, and other applicable health and safety standards
- Study industry publications and engage in professional associations (see our Recommended Tools/Resources section)
- If necessary to advance, switch to a larger employer (for example, moving from a local job to a federal one)
- AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees)
- Agronomic Science Foundation
- American Association of Grain Inspection and Weighing Agencies
- American Dairy Science Association
- American Society for Clinical Pathology
- American Society of Agronomy
- American Society of Animal Science
- Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
- Association of Food & Drug Officials
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Food and Nutrition Service
- Horticultural Inspection Society
- International Fresh Produce Association
- International Organic Inspectors Association
- National Agricultural Library
- National Grain and Feed Association
- National Institute of Food and Agriculture
- National Restaurant Association
- Partnership for Food Safety Education
- Soil Science Society of America
- The Grain Elevator and Processing Society
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Working as an Agricultural Products Inspector can be a tough gig. Farm owners, and agricultural processing and packaging businesses aren’t always excited to get inspected, and may become frustrated when inspectors write them up or have to shut down work until a problem is fixed. There’s often a lot of travel and there are loads of ever-changing regulations to keep apprised of.
If you’re interested in reviewing some related occupations, we recommend the following alternatives!
- Agricultural and Food Scientist
- Agricultural Engineer
- Agricultural Products Grader
- Agricultural Technician
- Conservation Scientist and Forester
- Construction and Building Inspector
- Environmental Science and Protection Technician
- Farmer, Rancher, and Agricultural Manager
- Fish and Wildlife Manager
- Food Processing Equipment Worker