The food industry has experienced a spate of attacks with books and films like Food Inc. and In Defense of Food making headlines recently – but could food science actually benefit from this negative press?
In her first interview as president of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), Marianne Gillette told Caroline Scott-Thomas that mainstream media targeting the food industry is an opportunity to raise awareness of the safety, health and flavor issues that it has to tackle. This in turn could help secure more funding.
When the food industry is portrayed a poor light, being president of IFT is a job that needs a dose of optimism, and Gillette is certainly upbeat.
“We have an opportunity to work with the media and consumers because popular books have raised an interest in food technology,” she said.
Communicating the relevance of food science is not a recent problem; getting young people interested in a career in food technology has been a struggle for years. Former IFT president Dr John Floros spoke about the predicament and how the organization planned to deal with it back in June last year.
Gillette said that although the situation has yet to improve, it is a problem that IFT is in a position to influence. While part of the solution lies in education programs – going into schools, for example, to excite young people about the profession – there is also a huge funding problem that needs to be addressed.
Research funding has been in decline for over 20 years. Without adequate funding, there are fewer research grants available, which is bad news for food scientists and technologists and consumers alike.
But this is where bad publicity could be helpful. Now, nearly everyone is interested in having a conversation about food policy and supply and having more frequent opportunities to speak about the role of food scientists and the importance of their work could pave the way for more funding.
That funding could then be used to attend to the big issues facing food science.
So what are the big issues for IFT during her presidency? Gillette splits them into two categories: “There’s urgent and then there’s important,” she said.
The urgent, she explained, refers to IFT’s role in mitigating the environmental impacts of the global food chain and “addressing the dual challenges of overnourishment and undernourishment.”
“First, we need to be able to feed the billion people who go to bed hungry each night,” she said, while acknowledging that the United States, with its record obesity rate, has a huge and very different problem of its own.
After these issues, however, it is food safety that she calls the “number one concern” for both IFT members and consumers.
It is a subject has moved to the top of the agenda following a spate of foodborne illness outbreaks across the US in recent years, including foods ranging from spinach, to peppers, to the massive recall involving peanut products early in 2009.
“We have a very close relationship with the FDA…I can talk about how taste drives the consumer but food safety must always come first.”
Of course, food safety is not only about illness outbreaks; it is also about ensuring the safety of new technology, and at the fore is the fledgling area of nanotechnology in food. Gillette is clear that the food industry needs to be very cautious about how it introduces nano if it wants to avoid consumer backlash.
“I think that consumers will find it difficult to accept if we go about introducing it in the same way as GMOs,” she said. “We need to do it more slowly and more transparently, keep the consumer advised. Nobody likes to be surprised.”
Referring to the introduction of GM foods, she said: “I don’t think there was an attempt to veil the technology, but the industry didn’t realize what the consumer reaction would be.”
Gillette is also excited about a widening approach to environmental sustainability in the food industry. And her vision extends far beyond packaging, where much of the industry’s effort has been focused so far, to sustainable land, energy and water use right along the production and development chain.
“Sustainable product development is new and very exciting…We know a lot about packaging, but we will start to talk about a sustainable product life cycle,” she said. “I think that something that hasn’t been dealt with at all is how to run a product development lab that’s sustainable.”
Still, progress in any of these areas depends on adequate funding, which is why Gillette remains unremittingly optimistic – and even rather generous – about the rash of books slating the food industry.
“They are more interesting to read than a textbook on food safety or microbiology.”