There is no room for complacency, says Dr John D. Floros, President of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). In an exclusive interview with Stephen Daniells, Dr Floros voices his concerns about student numbers and what IFT is doing to turn the tide.
“Fewer food scientists means industry is not able to fill positions,” said Dr Floros, also head of the Department of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University. “It is trying to fill in the gaps with other disciplines, like chemists, physicists, biologists, and engineers, but with this approach there is only so much you can do.”
Dr Floros, working with Naveen Chikthimmah, also from Penn State, attacked the problem head on with a survey to assess the numbers of food scientists in the North America. The results, published in Food Technology (March 2007), showed a “fairly sharp decline over the last five to ten years,” said Dr Floros.
The decline showed that the “food science profession is on the wrong path in North America,” said Dr Floros and Dr Chikthimmah.
If North America is on the wrong path, then it is not walking it alone. The fall in enrollment numbers is being echoed around the world. In the UK, applicants for food science degree courses have more than halved in the last decade. Similar drops are seen in Australia, South Africa and elsewhere.
The implications extend beyond the food industry to the food regulatory environment, and academia.
Too cool for school?
But why is there such a problem? A misunderstanding of the subject seems central to this. “The public perception of the field needs to change,” said Dr Floros. “Food scientists are not chefs: Food science is a scientific discipline.”
Things do appear to be changing, however. Dr Floros points out that the profession was voted number three in the top ‘nine cool jobs that pay well’ published on CNN.com earlier this month.
The $53,810 average starting salary for food scientists should also make prospective disciples sit up and take notice. (The average IFT member earns $84,000, according to the February 2008 issue of Food Technology).
Actually, food science did better than number three. Number one on the list was brewmaster, which makes Dr Floros smile. “Brewmasters are food scientists,” he said. “So we are actually at number one and three on the cool list.”
Although brewmasters are supposedly cooler, they aren’t paid as much, reportedly earning an average salary of $42,430.
“We have a decline in the number of food science students and practicing food scientists,” said Dr Floros. “So where do we go from here?”
IFT’s approach is three-pronged, he said. Targeting the food scientists of the future should start as early as possible and the IFT Discovery Education program, launched in 2006, provides lots of information to over 18,000 high schools.
“We want to show high school students that food science is a flexible, interesting, real-world science and you get a very rewarding career,” said Dr Floros.
The second approach is creating a community of young professionals, getting them more involved, and establishing them as ambassadors for IFT, he said.
The final approach is the IFT Student Association. “We put students to task to bring others into the association,” he said.
The action was necessary, he adds, because some food science departments at universities across the US would have “ceased to exist”.
So are the approaches working? “The decline has stopped and we’re probably now starting to go back up,” said Dr Floros. “I don’t want to jump the gun and say we’ve turned the corner, but I’m very hopeful that we’ll see a reversal of the tide. We now have to sustain these programs.”
And how has industry reacted and pitched in to ensure its future? “Support from industry is important,” he said, before adding: “But industry has been slightly slower to react [to the decline].”
Take home message
“Recently, there have been a series of books and activity giving food science a pretty bad reputation,” said Dr Floros. “It is sad to see smart, articulate, educated people writing these things, but the bottom line is without food science we will not be able to feed the seven billion or so people on this planet.”
What could be more rewarding that saving the world?
Stephen Daniells is the science editor of NutraIngredients.com and FoodNavigator.com. He has a PhD in chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.
He is also a member of IFT.