John Ruff, a former senior vice president of R&D at Kraft Foods, was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA six weeks after taking the helm at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).
A growing recognition that their in-house R&D departments do not have a monopoly on good ideas - and a willingness to make collaboration part of their culture - is starting to transform the way the biggest names in the industry are working, said Ruff.
A significant shift of mindset
While some firms were initially cautious about giving too much away about their R&D plans to rivals by going public with their challenges, they have now accepted that the pros “significantly outweigh” the cons,he said.
“It’s really about solving problems and creating new benefits. You have to address the intellectual property challenges [that open innovation raises], but major companies more and more recognize the benefit.
“Open innovation to the food industry is like open source to the computing industry.
“While there has always been some degree of open innovation in the industry and the tools [that facilitate it] have got better, I would say there has also been a significant shift of mindset in recent years and a recognition that the rewards significantly outweigh the potential concerns.”
How are we going to feed 9bn people by 2050?
And collaboration will be key if food scientists are to solve the biggest challenges facing the industry today, said Ruff, who unveiled a new video yesterday discussing how food science and technology can provide sustainable solutions throughout the food system.
“Food preservation and processing are what have helped us feed billions, but we have to come up with even newer technologies to feed the billions of people by 2050."
Indeed, while scientists working in the food industry might be tasked with developing new flavors of potato chips or the next candy bar, they are also addressing one of the biggest challenges we face as a species, which is how are we going to feed 9bn people by 2050, he said.
And attracting more high school students into food science as a career will be critical if we are to meet that daunting challenge, he said.
“We’re trying to appeal to the food scientists of the future - to attract the best and the brightest candidates.
"We need to ask how much food science has made it possible to support and foster the advancement of mankind for tens of hundreds of years. That’s one of the reasons we’ve created the World Without Food Science campaign. You can’t turn back the hands of time.”
While IFT education videos such as the ‘Day in the Life of a Food Scientist’ featuring Michele Perchonok from NASA talking about space food are designed to highlight some of the sexier areas of food science, they are also a reminder that food scientists are working on some truly blue sky projects, he observed.
“It tugs me every time I watch it.”
In the past two years, enrolment into food science programs has increased
While food science has suffered in recent years as interest in science programs overall has waned, there have been some encouraging signs that the tide is beginning to turn, he said.
“In the past two years, enrolment into food science programs in the US has increased - we hope in part due to our activities.”
And while the quality of food science degrees in China and other markets is improving all the time, US universities are “still the best in the world”, he claimed.
“The challenge is getting high school students to go into food science.”
Self-regulation vs government regulation
Asked about legislation that impacts the food industry - and the extent to which it is science-based - Ruff observed that regulators are lobbied by industry groups, consumer advocacy groups and a raft of other stakeholders when they are developing policy.
And too often, he claimed, “science is the shortest leg of the stool. We’ve got to help regulators have a better understanding of the whole food chain.”
But when it comes to areas such as nutrition and health, can the industry be trusted to police itself?
In some areas, voluntary approaches can work significantly faster than legislative ones, he said.
“There’s no question that self-regulation is quicker than any regulatory process.”
However, in areas such as sodium reduction, it doesn’t always work, or at least work fast enough, while those firms that have made significant progress feel they are being undermined by those that have not made any progress, creating an "uneven playing field", he said.