Jon Poole, Chief Executive of Institute of Food Science & Technology
In an age which pits the organic movement against GM food, clearly, issues of nutrition and food security have been moved much higher onto the social agenda. Jon Poole, Chief Executive of IFST, explains how the organisation is poised to address these concerns
IFST is a membership organisation and registered charity. Our main aims are focused around the advancement of food science and technology, its application and its education. In particular, our activities are sharing and disseminating knowledge around food science and related issues – both within the scientific community and to the wider community, as well as encouraging the development of new knowledge underlying food science. Another key activity for IFST is concerned with setting and upholding standards of competence and integrity within the profession.
Is IFST membership open to a variety of professionals, and if so, what are the benefits of this integrative approach?
Membership within IFST is currently on an individual basis. The value of IFST really comes from the quality and breadth of experience of its members and others who engage with us. It is very important, therefore, that we encourage membership from as broad a base as possible – from industry, from academia, from those involved in research through to those involved in government or regulation. We also try to encourage membership from those in all stages in career, from students to those in the latter stages of their career.
To what extent does education – both professionally and in terms of raising awareness among the general public regarding food science and safety – form an integral part of the IFST’s underlying principles?
It is core to what we do. Within the profession, the Institute provides opportunities for the sharing of knowledge directly, through its peer reviewed journal – the International Journal of Food Science & Technology; through its quarterly magazine to members; through its conferences, lectures and seminars. Indirectly, the Institute also encourages education and learning through its promotion of its standards and continuing professional development. Education of food science and safety to the general public is a more difficult one. We are committed to providing more information via schools, the media and to government and are currently planning how we can best achieve this.
What, in your opinion, distinguishes IFST qualifications and awards from those affiliated with other bodies?
Our remit of food science and technology is based on applied sciences; in cross-cutting many other pure sciences and disciplines, it provides two distinct advantages. Firstly, our qualifications and awards recognise the mix of sciences that make up the many different applications we are involved in – from bio-engineering through to sensory sciences. This helps to attract members with a broad range of scientific backgrounds. Secondly, and most importantly, as our qualifications relate very specifically to the application of food science, they have direct applicability to organisations and those working in the food sector. Our qualifications can be used to directly support and encourage best practice in our sector. Moreover, we encourage and accredit members based on their documented evidence of experience in the sector rather than on purely past academic achievement, which opens up our membership to a wider audience.
The IFST seeks to safeguard the public by defining, promoting and upholding professional standards of competence, integrity and ethical behaviour. Can you offer examples of how the IFST manifests this in practice?
To become a Member or Fellow of IFST we will initially need to see evidence of our required level of experience backed up by references from others of high standing in the profession. Most importantly to remain members, individuals are required to abide by our professional code of conduct. Outside of our direct membership, we also accredit continuing professional development schemes within a number of food based organisations.
There is an ever-growing awareness among consumers and producers alike to balance concerns of affordability with an accountability and responsibility for the environment. What do you consider to be the major challenges facing the IFST in encouraging healthier and more environmentally-conscious lifestyle choices?
Consumers should always be free to choose the food they want to eat but do need to become much better informed over the choices they make and also the implications of their choices. Consumers are bombarded with so many messages about the environmental impact of their choices and how to eat healthily. This loud babble of messages coming from the media, from manufacturers and retailers and directly from government can often be confusing and, at times, even contradictory. IFST’s independent scientific base puts it in a very strong position to provide trusted, reliable guidance. There are two main challenges for IFST. We need to ensure our voice is heard over the significant noise from other organisations. For this reason, we have just instigated an important project aimed at ensuring we are in a position to deliver key messages to those that need to be informed. We, along with other science-based organisations, also need to encourage and empower consumers with little or no science background to take an interest in broader science issues and learn enough to be able to interpret what they hear and read.
Recently, after industry lobbying, MEPs voted on the EU Food Information Proposal, and sanctioned the system of ‘Guideline daily amounts’ over that of ‘traffic light’ labels. What implications might this bear, should legislation be drawn in-line with the vote?
There are currently a number of different food-labelling methodologies employed which, rather than inform, often create confusion. Moving to a single labelling system should therefore to be welcomed. We believe, however, that providing a simple traffic light system does not encourage consumers to understand fully their choices and could result in certain foods becoming ‘demonised’. The proposal for a single system based on guideline daily amounts, however, would provide clear information by which consumers can then make more informed choices. This does assume, however, that consumers understand sufficiently what is presented to them and also that they take the time and effort to try to interpret what is shown.
In what ways does the IFST seek to inform policy and decision making within the EU?
The Institute has a number of avenues by which it can inform policy. Firstly, directly through responses to consultations. We are also a member of UKFFoST and, EFFoST the UK and European federations representing other similar bodies across Europe – both of these are the adhering bodies to The International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST). On broader scientific issues we are a member of the UK’s Science Council and will help to formulate responses or provide statements from this broad science community where appropriate. Again, as part of our project to increase our voice and influence, we will be looking at how we can provide stronger and more proactive representation at all levels.
From a crop yield perspective, how pressing is the need to develop strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change, and what position or responsibility does the IFST hold in this regard?
This is very pressing issue and one which is going to become more and more significant. The Institute clearly has a responsibility and a role to play – as do all other organisations and individuals. Many aspects of food science have an impact on or are impacted by climate change – from the continued availability of water for growing and manufacturing through to packaging and distribution; from food waste through to genetic modification. The IFST encourages the development and use of technologies that have a low impact on the environment and encourages efforts to ensure continued food production into the future as the climate changes. The IFST’s particular role is around encouraging the free exchange of clear, balanced information on these topics, amongst the scientific community and to the wider community of governments the food sector and consumers, to ensure the most appropriate decisions are made. IUFFost, for example, recently published a Scientific Information Bulletin on ‘Water for Food and Farming’ representing input from the international food science and technology community including IFST members.
What is the IFST’s vision or strategy for the next 10 years? What do you anticipate to be the major challenges facing the organisation – and food technology more generally – during this time?
Some of our shorter-term challenges are about developing the organisation and its delivery mechanisms to be as effective as possible. I want to put these changes in place quickly so that we can focus our efforts externally in support of the food science profession and wider sector. As I have previously mentioned, I expect the Board to confirm IFST’s long-term strategy in the coming months. Given all I have said, though, I can already see a number of key areas in which I am sure we will want to focus and contribute:
• Contributing to global challenges such as climate change, sustainability and food security
• Sharing knowledge, providing a platform for balanced scientific debate and informing key stakeholders and decision makers
• Developing further our position as a provider and accreditor of professional standards and registers within the profession–encouraging those in the profession to develop and raise their standards of professionalism, so building consumer confidence
• Developing new ways in which individuals can engage with IFST. As well as traditional membership engagement, I would expect to be putting in place new, easily accessible ways in which people and organisations can play a role within the Institute
Are there any other aspects of your work that you wish to discuss?
One area I have not commented on, and in which IFST can play an important role, relates to the sector’s challenge of being able to attract sufficient high calibre individuals – especially into science and technical based roles. It is no secret that this has become a significant issue. I believe there are a lot of misconceptions over the types of roles and career opportunities available in food science. ‘Food technology’ in many schools is a term to describe cooking, or what was previously known as ‘Home Economics’. I am sure this, and the negative impression many students have of the food industry, plays a part in putting off potential high-calibre candidates. We along with other organisations such as the sector skills councils can do a lot more to show highlight the wide diversity of exciting jobs and careers available in food science.