Food safety is becoming increasingly important to consumers, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t also expect creativity, quality, and innovation from what they choose to eat. With these demands growing, and as well as a desire for environmentally-friendly and sustainable products, tomorrow’s class of food scientists may have even more to consider as they begin their careers.
Manan Sharma began the session with a discussion on balance and how it pertains to the human gut biome, sustainable approaches to food safety, and international issues in food safety and testing. In the gut, the concept of balance applies to fiber; eating fiber provides health benefits, but it also makes people more susceptible to E. coli. In the future, he says, we “need to figure out the relationship between specific pathogenic bacteria and overall health.” In that same vein, as an industry, we want people to eat more fruits and vegetables, but we don’t want them to get sick doing it; recent outbreaks of foodborne illness have been associated with cantaloupe, spinach, and sprouts. Sharma also discussed water availability as a huge issue to watch going forward, citing the need for cost-effective technologies to irrigate crops. These could include recycling water, treating it with ultraviolet light, and filtering it through iron filings.
IFT Past President Janet E. Collins then spoke about past and current food-associated regulations, global standards, food industry impacts, and consumer concerns. “We talk about food safety as though it’s a thing when it’s everything,” she said. In her discussion, Collins said that recent regulations have focused on implementing precautionary measures that are risk-averse, sometimes in ways that don’t make sense scientifically. These labeling requirements can also have an impact on limiting global trade.
When it comes to labeling, she asked which things consumers really need and want to know; sometimes they think they want to go back to what they believe were simpler times, but this is because they don’t understand the science that goes into creating food. “We haven’t told them why we do what we do,” she noted, saying that claims on labels can be confusing to people who don’t understand how food is made. As scientists, we need to have hard conversations in the public sphere to better spread the message that innovation doesn’t have to be scary.
According to IFT professional member Lester A. Wilson, when it comes to preparing future food scientists currently in universities, “the future is now.” In his presentation, he discussed how models of higher education have evolved, tracing how teaching has moved from traditional lectures to hands-on learning and field trips to enhance how students learn. “We’re moving into student-centered learning,” he observed. Internships, co-ops, and shadowing help give students real-world experience to help determine their career paths. Traditional lecture formats have long been heading online, but sometimes they now include hands-on practice to apply the knowledge. In what’s called a “flip class,” lectures are held online and experiments are held in the classroom, something that’s been seen particularly in food engineering classes. Scientists must be confident in assessing situations related to food safety and quality and being able to understand the food supply chain—educators must stress critical thinking and problem solving to help prepare students to make these kinds of decisions.
The final speaker, IFT emeritus professional member John H. Litchfield, began his presentation with a review of the emerging technologies he presented in 1998—energy for processing, water use and reuse, nonthermal processes, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and packaging. Fast forward to 2015, forms of these topics are still in the forefront of emerging technologies. Litchfield discussed the key issues relating to these topics, such as using bioenergy, solar, and wind power to power food production more sustainably, as well as the idea of sociohydrology, which measures the water footprint associated with water use throughout production process.
He also introduced a new topic for 2015: big data analytics, volumes of large, complex, linkable data. The more data you collect, he said, the more likely there will be errors, so scientists must be careful. But big data allows for analysis from whole genome sequencing of food pathogens, food processing operational data, and integration of economic and market data with food product development. He believes that students must learn in school how to integrate this kind of information technology with traditional science education to be able to use this technology in their future jobs.