What’s it like to stand at the helm of the world’s largest organization of food science professionals at a time when consumers are more likely to ask (and trust) each other than an ‘expert’ or 'official' source to get answers on everything from GMO labeling to what’s safe to eat?
Elaine Watson caught up with Dr Janet Collins, senior manager at DuPont in regulatory affairs, and the new president of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), to find out…
What are your goals as IFT president 2013/14?
If I can increase the visibility of IFT as an active participant in creating solutions to problems identified by the food industry, I’ll be happy.
My other key priorities are global outreach and working more closely with young professionals. We have very active student chapters, but sometimes people lose touch with us when they start work.
As for global outreach, we’ve been working with the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology for several years with an initial focus on trust building, but we are stepping that up with visits, shared publications and bringing people together to do research, and the relationship has now become a very solid one.
We’re also talking to organizations in Mexico. There are three places where there are organizations like the IFT and we’re trying to collaborate with them to pull together as one.
The IFT aims to be the resource of choice for food professionals, consumers and regulators when it comes to developing and communicating science-based positions on key food industry issues. Do you think consumers see the IFT as the #1 resource?
Consumers used to get information from government sources or academics, but now they rely on each other and the internet and they aren’t necessarily looking for ‘verifiable’ sources.
We have been called upon by the mainstream media to answer some science based questions, but I’d like the IFT to have a much louder voice, to be much more visible.
Why don’t consumers trust food industry ‘experts’?
We were discussing this last week in relation to the debate [sparked by recent papers from Pew Health ] on the [merits of the] GRAS process.
It’s often a case of we don’t know, so we don’t trust. But in many cases the problem is that we not answering the questions that people are really asking. So we’ll come back with data, and say 'this ingredient is safe because…' when the question people are really asking is, 'What is this doing in my food in the first place?'
What role should the IFT play in the current debate over GM crops and whether to label ingredients derived from them?
IFT is not a lobbying organization and I’m not going to speak to my perspective on that, but it seems as though the industry in general hasn’t done a very job of helping people understand why we do what we do.
However, I don’t think it’s too late to have a legitimate discussion about GMOs. Yes, views are very polarized, but I think most people have not actually made their minds up on this issue yet.
But as I said before, we need to give people the science, but many consumers are not receptive to messages that are just about coming back and saying, 'This is safe.'
We need to develop tools to demonstrate to the public some of the wonders of food science, what the world would be like without it.
How are consumers supposed to reconcile the mixed messages that the food industry sometimes sends out? They tell consumers that lean finely textured beef is perfectly safe... but then they drop it to reflect ‘consumer concerns’. They stress that ‘natural' is not automatically safer or healthier... but make a virtue of avoiding 'artificial' ingredients.
I think it’s always been the case that the R&D department will not send out the same messages as their marketing departments.
Take the word ‘natural’. As a marketer I’ll push it, as a scientist, I’ll push back, and as a regulator I throw up my hands!
What’s changed since you started working in the food industry?
I’ve got a broad-based background in food science, biochemistry and dietetics/nutrition, and now I’m in regulatory affairs. But today people seem to be much more focused on one of these [disciplines] and they buttonhole themselves.
What changes would you like to see on the Nutrition Facts panel?
The challenge is that consumers are all looking for different things on food labels. Personally, for example, I’d like to see potassium on the label, and I always look for protein, but other people are more focused on calories and fat.
Is self-regulation working when it comes to sodium reduction?
There is a lot of information out there but consumers are not listening. The challenge is that many people are more interested in monitoring calories, sugar and fat than sodium.