Technological advancements have opened up our borders for transfer of goods, cross-cultural collaboration and exchange of innovative ideas. But this brings its own set of challenges for professionals who keep our borders safe !

Muhammad Salman Chukkan, our next pathbreaker, Technical Officer at Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, looks out for unsafe and illegal food, and carries out inspections of plant and animal related items that are imported into the Indian Territory.

Muhammad talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his interest in Food Safety sparked by an internship at Nestle and enjoying the daily challenge of scrutinizing and inspecting different foods arriving at different times through combined exercises with customs, animal quarantine and plant quarantine departments.

For students, there is a great deal of satisfaction in representing your nation and protecting the society from the ill-effects of unsafe foods.

Muhammad, please tell us about your Background:

I come from very humble and typical middle class Muslim family from the Malabar region of Kerala, which means my family values education more than anything else. I was very fortunate to get a chance to grow in both India and Saudi Arabia. This exposure to an International culture has shaped my character and personality. It was the time I realised that there are a plethora of opportunities available out there if you got the right education, training and skillset. Most of the people consider their relatives as a burden, but for me they were a boon, as they were educated and well settled people, which helped me understand pros and cons of different sectors, be it Engineering, Medical or even CA.

As a child I was a typical average student who was just existing in schools, and was never a favourite student for teachers. Since childhood I enjoyed Mathematics, Science and Social Sciences but hated all other subjects, especially languages.

It was in eighth standard when I finally moved from Saudi Arabia to India to pursue my education. This bold decision to move actually helped me to regain my lost confidence as my school in Saudi Arabia was focused on the capacity of memorizing and not on the capacity of understanding a particular concept.

Though my parents are not formally educated, they were pretty good at the subject of their interest. My father is an inspiration because though he does not have any formal degree in computer science, he managed to learn 9 different programming languages by himself. And my mother was pretty good at languages, especially Arabic and Malayalam. Both my parents have played an active role in shaping my character as I draw all pros from both of them.

Tell us about your graduation/post-graduation

This is a period during which I rapidly grew from being a school boy to a confident young man. After my +2, I started to prepare for the JEE Mains examination and I managed to get a decent score with which I applied to my “DREAM COLLEGE”. Let me be frank, I never expected that I would get a seat in my first attempt. That’s how I joined the Indian Institute of Food Processing Technology, Thanjavur for my Bachelor’s in Food Process Engineering.

IIFPT was full of challenges. The first challenge was language and cultural change which I tackled in a month’s time. Then came the CUT-THROAT competition in my class. As a Malayalam proverb says ’If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas’, If you are among a highly competitive and ambitious group of people, you will certainly become as competitive as them. It took almost 2 years of continuous hard-work and struggles to cope up with this challenge.

It was in Third year that I understood that I love science more than management, and that is why I started my preparation for the GATE examination. I qualified with a pretty good rank and then secured a seat in the prestigious Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.  I joined the M.Tech program in Food Engineering and Technology. In my second year of M.Tech I cleared UGC-NET/JRF with 99.47 percentile in the first attempt. By this time I had immense confidence in my capabilities.

So, in essence, It was persistent hard-work and constantly dreaming which fuelled me to perform in my academics.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

It was my dad who was responsible for my interest in the Food sector. On one fine day in 2010, my father showed me a Canadian documentary series called ‘How it’s Made’. I still remember one episode of the series which focused on the process of Industrial Soy Sauce production. That was an instant hit for me. I started my research which led me to Agricultural Sciences and Agricultural Engineering. But on doing further research, I found that Food Technology or Food Processing had a better business viability compared to other careers. It was my teacher Mr. Muhammad Shanveer who helped me in finding the premier Institutes in this field. And that’s how I chose my career.

Tell us about your Career Path

I believe a career is shaped by factors such as Self, Environment and Extra-efforts. Environment includes your friends, college etc. As a person with no contacts or guides in the field, the majority of my career planning was essentially by networking/LinkedIn. I request every motivated individual to juice-out the potential of LinkedIn.

My professional journey started with Nestle India Pvt Ltd, Mysuru. I worked as a Production Intern there. The internship at Nestle was very challenging as it was my first raw experience in the Industry. During this period I was fortunate enough to be part of two projects-One was ‘Optimizing labour power’ and other was ‘Development of Hygienic Table’. This internship helped boost my confidence, improve my people management, communication and innovation skills.

I understood the importance of FOOD SAFETY during the period in Nestle. It is to be noted that Nestle India is investing a lot of money in food safety systems in their facilities. I was involved in a project focused on improving the existing food safety in a particular area. This particular project raised my interest in Food safety. After this period, I trained myself by getting certifications like HACCP, TACCP & VACCP (All these are different systems of food safety). Right now I am a Preventive Control Qualified Individual (PCQI) which is certified by US-FDA.

During the same period I volunteered for an organization called Internshala, which helped me to improve my networking and also communication skills. I also got international exposure by volunteering for an organization named International Society of Science, Engineering and Technology, where I got multiple opportunities to interact with scientists and technologists from across the world. This experience helped me to further improve my networking and communication skills.

During my masters I was fortunate enough to get selected for a very prestigious iTaste Technical Internship with Mondelez India Foods Pvt Ltd at their beautiful R & D campus. Here, I had the chance to meet some of the superstars of Food Technology in India like Samant sir, Sanjeev Kumar sir, Arijit Mazumder sir. This internship helped shape me as a complete R & D professional, from a young fresher. This was the time I picked up interest in Accelerated Shelf-life study, Sensory evaluation, Regulatory processes and NPD.

Initially, I was worked in New Product development in the beverage division. I worked for brands like Bourn-vita, Tang & 3 in 1 Hot Chocolate. I was fortunate to work on an International project, this was basically a reformulation of an existing product to reduce the cost of product and thus gaining market advantage over the competitors in the South East Asian market.

At the same time I started to Volunteer at an organization named TagTaste Pvt Ltd, as a campus ambassador and Club head. This volunteering helped in improving my Leadership ability and team management skills.

After my Masters, I joined a very reputed R & D consultancy firm named Thinking Forks Pvt Ltd, Bangalore, as Development Associate. Here I was responsible for developing products for both International and Domestic clients. The period at Thinking Forks helped me develop as a complete R&D professional.

Here, as a Development Associate, I worked with my clients to develop New product Ideas, trying to understand the market and consumer base. I was also in-charge of developing new products according to the brief given by my clients at the lab. I was also looking after the regulatory aspects of the food products I was developing. I really enjoyed the time at Thinking Forks, Bangalore.

This is when I picked up interest in Design Thinking and Project Management.

Later, I joined the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India as a Technical Officer. The selection was based on a two tier examination, first being a computer based multiple choice test followed by a descriptive test. There were around 2 Lakhs of students who appeared for the exam across India. I was fortunate enough to get an AIR of 52. I am now posted at the Mumbai office. The experience at FSSAI is entirely different from a typical corporate experience, but I am enjoying this new experience.

I believe career growth can be achieved easily and effectively if you collaborate with like-minded individuals. I am so proud that I have mentored around 25 people till date.

How did you get your first break?

My first-break was through my own effort. I always wanted to get into an R&D position, which I didn’t get in college placements. But in the meantime, I got lots of offers in production, quality and supply-chain, which I didn’t want to pursue as my career.

Then I worked on my resume to make it stand out from others, and started to contact different R&D consultancies through LinkedIn. That is how I joined Thinking Forks Pvt Ltd, Bangalore. 

What were some of the challenges you faced in your career?

Lack of communication skills and confidence: 

I lacked communication as I was from a local school. I was never aware of the importance of communication skills. I developed my communication skills by speaking to my peers at campus and also took part in debates and presentations. As of now I am proud to say that I can comfortably handle 4 different languages. And I am in the process of learning two more.

Low esteem/Low Motivation: 

As Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, I always considered myself inferior in skills/knowledge compared to my peers. I overcame this by avoiding all possible comparisons with anyone, introspecting to find shortfalls in me, and rectifying myself. Soon I proved to myself that I am not inferior to anyone, by getting 100% in a test.

Lack of guidance: 

It is very difficult to pave a way in without guidance. Initially it was very difficult. But now I have two mentors whom I contact if I have any doubts or issues. In the same way, I am also mentoring people.

I have volunteered in several organizations on purpose. I joined all these organizations to develop my skills. At TagTaste Pvt Ltd, I was a campus ambassador, and was responsible for conducting sensory evaluations or tasting sessions at my campus with my club members. During this exercise I gave a brief to my team which helped me develop my speaking skills. Sometimes I used to write reports which helped me to develop my writing skills.

Where do you work Now? Tell us what you do

I currently work as a Technical Officer at Food Safety and Standards Authority of India at their Western Regional office. So you can now call me a ‘Sarkari Babu’ !!! I work in the Import division.

a. In a sense you can call me a ‘Customs officer of food’ because the function is similar, but there is more responsibility over my shoulders as a Technical Officer at the Imports division. I basically look out for unsafe and illegal food and then stop its entry into the Indian Territory.

b. This job requires strong knowledge of Food technology, Regulations, as well as people management, good communication skills and obviously keen observation. All these skills will develop through your college and personal experiences.

c. My day starts off with scrutinizing applications, followed by inspection. Inspection is fun, because the challenge is new everyday as there are different foods arriving at different times. Sometimes, we have combined exercises with customs, animal quarantine and plant quarantine departments.

d. The reason I love my job is that I am serving the nation and my fellow citizens. Food safety is a prime aspect in achieving the goals of a secure, healthy and happy nation.

What is the benefit of your work to society?

Food technology or an allied field is an exciting career option for people who have interest in careers based on food. There are two reasons why anyone should take up this career.

  1. Food is a sector where the workforce is always required which was also the case in COVID-19 times.
  2. Food sector is having one of the highest growth rates.

Tell us about your most memorable work

One work which is always close to my heart is that I developed a step by step guide for Accelerated Shelf-life assessment and also devised a new tool which helps to prioritize the shelf-life parameters for any beginner. Shelf-life assessment is the testing system for determining the period for which the food is safe for human consumption. There was no easy way to understand various step by step guides available. After I published this particular work, I got lot of queries, especially from the freshers. To help them, I developed a particular tool to prioritize the factors affecting the Shelf-life. This was a work I did which got immense appreciation from the food tech fraternity.

Advice to students?

Always dream big, work hard, be persistent, never compare yourself with others, always practise networking in the fraternity and share knowledge with others.

Future Plans?

I always keep short term and long term goals. As of now my short term goal is to be part of policy making. So I am planning to move to FSSAI HQ at New Delhi to be part of standard development or other policy making. My long term goal is to represent India in an International stage. I will work hard to achieve my goals.