Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA.com at IFT in Anaheim last week, Dr Floros, head of the Food Science Department at Penn State University, said that the current economic situation has not impacted investment in food technology, but funding has continued on a steady downward trajectory for 15 or 20 years.
This has been exacerbated by the proliferation of movements such as Slow Food and the organic lobby, which has added to the perception that food technology is about “messing with” consumers’ food, he said – and the situation threatens to undermine food safety efforts and slow innovation.
“Our government is not supporting the safety of the food supply with good science. You couple that with some of the movements out there – we are under attack as a profession.”
Dr Floros said that the downward trend for investment in food science and technology, and food processing in particular, has followed a “very straight line”.
“You can see the zero,” he said, “And it’s about 15 or 20 years out. Industry has been under pressure for a very long time. This particular crisis has had no impact whatsoever in my view.”
On the other hand, innovation is being affected by the crisis as companies delay hiring new people, buying new equipment and developing new ingredients.
“There is a reduced amount of money for long term research, which is where innovation comes from…And the employment delays also mean that innovation is affected. There is no good reason for food companies to hesitate in this way because people still need to eat in the same way as they did the day before.”
Reversing the trend
Dr Floros said he was concerned that if the government stops investment, not only will new research be unavailable, but there will not be the people to innovate in the future.
In order to turn things around, he argues that industry needs to become much more involved in the food technology training process.
“We are not training enough students to sustain our food system,” he said. “The industry needs to get out there and support the education of food technologists. Industry needs to step up to the plate.”
It is not all doom and gloom, however. He added that an explosion of television cooking shows has peaked the interest of young people, making cooking appear more interesting.
“For the first time, over the last year or two, I’m hearing that more students have come into food science. But we have a very science-based curriculum: You need chemistry, biology, math. So it remains to be seen whether the kids that are coming in are interested in the science or just the cooking.”