The first crop of 30 Armenian students who completed training in food safety this spring faced a big challenge: working toward a culture of food-safety behavior, according to Joe Marcy, head of the Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences  at Virginia Tech.

“We need specialists in Armenia who are willing to learn something new, who are ready to stop doing things in a way in which they were doing it before,” said Astghik Grigoryan, a student in the program.

The new Food Safety Systems Management certification course was offered this spring at the Agribusiness Teaching Center in Yerevan, Armenia.

Experts from Virginia Tech and Penn State delivered the intensive four-week course – designed to create culture change in Armenia’s food processing industry – through the USAID-funded Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education project.

Armenia, a country the size of Maryland, has approximately 1,600 food processing companies in need of food safety experts and managers.

“The Armenian market has a lack of specialists in the food-safety industry,” student Ani Saribekyan said. “Our knowledge will help to understand and eliminate the risks associated with food-safety issues and find ways to control those risks.”

Improving food safety is crucial to opening new markets to Armenian products, according to Anna Tsaturyan, a senior focused on agribusiness marketing. The prospect of better sales will impress food processors, increasing “their motivation to employ food-safety techniques,” Tsaturyan said.

Marcy’s needs assessment in Armenia involved talks with food-processing industry owners, government regulatory staff, farmers, veterinarians, and food-safety experts. The course included hands-on laboratory exercises and field trips to local food processing plants.

Ignati Arakelyan, Armenia’s minister of agriculture, told the students, “It is very important to use your knowledge in practice acquired during these courses and to bring a new culture to our reality.”

Among ideas the students said they are planning to implement:

  • digital marketing techniques employing social media to raise awareness
  • training for farmers in food-safety issues
  • pictures and videos aimed at teaching schoolchildren about food safety  

During spring 2018, Armenian food-safety and microbiology experts are expected to take over the teaching of the course.

The Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education – part of the federal Feed the Future initiative – works to strengthen agricultural education-and-training systems in developing countries. The Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs , manages the five-year project.

Written by Merrie Winfrey