Current position: R&I Packaging Food Safety Compliance Engineer, Danone, France
Education: Master's degree in Agro-food Packaging Engineering, AgroSup Dijon, France; Master's degree in Business Studies, IAE Dijon, France
Discover inspiring career paths from women in engineering! Take a look behind the scenes of your favorite desserts with Lola's path in food engineering.
Can you tell us about your educational background?
I started my cursus with a BCPST (Biology, Physics, Chemistry & Earth Sciences) preparatory class that can lead to two possibilities: veterinary school or agro-food engineering. I knew from the start that I would pursue with engineering. After passing the entry exam successfully, I studied three years at AgroSup Dijon. On the third year, I picked the « Packaging » specialization then interned at Danone which has been my employer since then. The idea of working in Food R&D came to me when I was younger after watching a TV show. Once at school, I realized it didn’t really fit me. However, we got a toxicology course during the first year that appealed to me immediately. It concerns everything related to food safety and substances that may impact consumers’ health. Therefore it’s important to analyze and assess the level of toxicity of these substances. I found it captivating and the only specialization including this field of study was Packaging. This specialization lasts 6 months and provides general training: it covers technical aspects as well as the machines, toxicology, regulation… It’s actually on your first job afterwards that you truly specialize yourself and learn by doing. It’s also the reason I didn’t embark on a PhD: I didn’t want to focus on a specific topic so early in my career as I preferred to keep doors open. I was eager to test and compare the possibilities once in the real world of work.
How did your internship go at Danone and what was your mission?
Danone is built on 4 core businesses: Essential Dairy and Plant-Based Products, Early Life Nutrition, Medical Nutrition and Waters. There’s one central team managing the food safety for all divisions which implies that they work on the pack as well as microbiology, ingredients, contaminants… My internship though had a specific mission in the pack team but let’s put it in the context first. In order to ensure packaging food safety, we run a series of tests to check the possible substances migrating from the pack to the food. Obviously we can’t afford to wait several weeks or months for a yogurt or a milk powder to expire and start analyzing it. Consequently, we do accelerated simulations by increasing the temperature of contact between the food and the pack, using simulants which mimic the food, according to conditions described in the regulation. Now let’s go back to my mission: there was a lack of regulation for a specific test called NIAS (Non-Intentionally Added Substances) screening. My role then was to create a dedicated tool defining the migration test conditions that Danone would refer to for this specific test. It was a very concrete mission so by extension very stimulating and we still make use of this tool on a regular basis.
I didn’t receive a specific training during my internship. I was informed about the key topics and fields I should explore like official regulations and Danone’s quality requirements. It was up to me to gather the necessary information. Afterwards I could jump into action and start conceiving my tool. I truly enjoyed my mission but what motivated me the most to stay at Danone was the work environment: here we can feel our work is valued and the management is genuinely caring. Of course it’s only my personal experience but I really felt a match with their company culture. You know, every year we get a conversation with our N+1 to exchange about our career, our wellbeing and our ambitions. Imagine I was willing to switch to product R&D. I could ask to do a « Live my life » experience and be placed in another team for 3 weeks to get to know their job and see if it could fit me. Besides the annual meet-up, you can get in touch with an HR representative whenever you feel the need to discuss. Their door is always open.
What happened after your internship?
Interns are trained on Danone’s processes and company culture. Hence their recruitment is highly encouraged even tough it always depends on the open positions. I got officially hired as a Packaging Food Safety Scientist after my internship. I stayed in the same team but my role changed. During my internship, I was in charge of one specific mission while as an employee I was covering a variety of topics and tasks. My new role involved doing scientific watch to improve Danone’s standards and conducting risk assessments. I also attended several conferences abroad to represent Danone and to keep up with scientific insights and regulations. I stayed about a year and a half in this position. I liked my job and learned by doing but I felt that my background could make more sense in other functions. Plus I had collaborated with many teams during the year and it got me very interested in everything related to Quality testing and Food Safety initiatives. I was willing to get more involved in the projects and really be in the business action. Therefore I switched jobs to become a Packaging Food Safety Compliance Engineer. I am now a full member of the European Research & Innovation Packaging team and I ensure the food safety validation of new packs. It implies that I’m in contact with the suppliers, the labs, the project teams and the pack engineers. It’s a very dynamic position that fully matches with my expectations.
Can you describe your daily work routine?
I spend most of my time on a computer although the rest of my team visits the factories regularly. I am in fact a support for the pack engineers that may have questions related to the food safety approval. My role is to find answers to all those questions. If it involves the development of a new pack, I’m going to get in touch with the dedicated engineer: I will ask for detailed information about the packaging, the product, the supplier and eventually contact this supplier to request and verify the necessary documents. If needed, I will also initiate a migration analysis. I am regularly in touch with the Quality teams as their work is closely linked to food safety. If any problem regarding the substances is noticed, for example a migration level exceeding the authorized limit, it’s my responsibility to contact the supplier and try to find the cause, to find potential alternatives – for example using an other substance or another raw material supplier – and discuss solutions meeting the deadlines with the projects team. My job involves a certain level of pressure but it’s part of the challenge. It gives me a great sense of achievement.
What are the major challenges you have encountered and overcome?
My current position didn’t exist. It was supposed to be a temporary mission of 6 months to support my current team. At the end, the company decided to fully integrate me into the team on an ongoing basis. In a certain way, we can say that they have created this position for me. I managed to prove the tangible value I was bringing to the team during my mission and I’m really glad to keep working with them. It makes me feel useful.
How do you envision your future?
For two years now I have accumulated experience in my field and the next step for me would be to manage other people. My role of support gives me many occasions to help people and I like the idea of having someone to guide, train and help moving forward with his or her career. I will have my very first intern next year and I am looking forward to it. I am convinced that it will be a very enriching experience. Over the long term, I’d love to have a team to manage. My other main ambition is to experience working abroad. My team has a European scope and part of it is located in Spain and Poland. As most of my work is on a computer, I can work from pretty much anywhere as long as I have Internet access. I made an official request but of course it will depend on the budget and the opportunities. Internal mobility is strongly encouraged at Danone so I am optimistic.
Do you have a last recommendation for future agro-food engineers?
I’d like to tell the (future) students not to stress about the school ranking. I personally gave it too much credit as my engineering school wasn’t considered as a top one. With hindsight, I feel proud of my cursus and what I have achieved so far. I also realized that employers don’t pay much attention to a prestigious name on a paper. They’d rather focus on your profile, your achievements, what you make of your educational background, your extracurricular activities and interests, your curiosity… I wish I had known this from the start, I would have put less pressure on myself. Finally, I’d advise you to express yourself when you’re in a real job. Do not be afraid to communicate on your professional ambitions, whether for job positions, fields of activity or the potential desire to work abroad. That way, when opportunities arise, your hierarchy will already be aware of your interest. Take control of your career!
By Sophie Vande Kerkhove
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