Food science at a crossroads

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food science, Food and drink, Nutrition

The great and the good of academia and the industry got together last month in an attempt to resolve the impending crisis in food science. Rick Pendrous heard what they had to say

We need to start being a bit more honest about the differences between the food element of Design & Technology (D&T) as taught up to GCSE in schools and the scientific rigour that is expected of food science at A-level and beyond.

This was the view of Paul Hebblethwaite, science director at Cadbury Schweppes. He was speaking at a forum convened last month by the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) to address the looming recruitment crisis in the sector.

And a crisis really does exist. Kids are just not opting for food science at A-level and subsequent careers in the industry. It is often seen as a 'Micky Mouse' subject: too closely associated with 'home economics' by pupils and their parents -- and even disparaged by many teachers and careers advisors.

There are many misconceptions about a career in food science, claims Keith Proudlove of Sheffield Hallam University. Not least of these are that it is a subject for 'weaker' students, with little basis in science and that there are no jobs at the end of it. In fact starting salaries for food scientists are around £2,000 to £3,000 more than the average for science graduates, claims David Ledward, a recently retired professor of food science and former head of the School of Food Biosciences at the University of Reading.

"The problem is there is very little interest in food on the science side of schools," says Proudlove. "We've got a big task in making it more meaningful in schools and more viable in schools."

Food technology currently falls within the D&T syllabus up to GCSE. And, from examples presented, children seem to enjoy the creative aspects of making their own food products, while discovering how to turn a concept into a commercial reality. But the food modules have to compete with other parts of the D&T curriculum. They require dedicated and expensive facilities within schools that, because of their hygiene requirements, cannot easily be made available for other uses.

Ledward predicted a future in which just two or three main centres of excellence existed in the UK for top notch tertiary food science teaching and research compared with around 10 now, as numbers of students taking up courses continues to fall.

While "sexy" subjects such as nutrition may be going up, food science courses that require higher academic qualifications are falling. "It's an expensive degree, which is why a lot of universities don't like it," says Ledward. "Nutrition is the new sociology."

A corollary of this is that some academics claim the quality of students accepted on courses and subsequently graduating is starting to fall. By contrast, in a country such as Thailand, food science is the second most difficult subject to study after medicine, claims Ledward.

But how many food scientists does the UK need to train? And would it be such a disaster if they were recruited from overseas? In any case, are the courses as currently constructed actually meeting the changing needs of the industry? These were just some of the questions posed.

It seems more and more big food and drink companies are happy to employ good chemistry or science graduates and train them in the necessary food skills they require.

While the forum provided no simple solutions, it was decided to set up a working group of academics and manufacturers, with input from relevant government departments, to argue the case for more funding for food science and technology teaching. This, the gathering concluded, was the only way to ensure a future for the discipline in the UK.

Most heads of food science departments within universities would claim that the discipline is essential. "It is self-evident that food science and technology is important for this country and is becoming more important," says Professor Peter Belton, president of IFST. The trouble, he warns, is that children are turning away from the subject because of the "poor image of food science and technology"

What is needed, say some commentators, are more role models who can inspire children to the same degree as their sporting heroes. Or perhaps role models they esteem in the same way they do many of the country's celebrity chefs.

It is a complaint often voiced by engineers and scientists, who are viewed so lowly in the UK in comparison to elsewhere. In other countries they are feted: frequently rising to the top of their respective organisations and achieving the status and income that goes with it.

Fighting perceptions

And that is probably where the answer lies. Science and engineering are not very well paid in this country and the perception is that those at the top specialise instead in law, finance and marketing. Rather than becoming the md, the food scientist will remain forever in the lab.

Ask the average 10-year-old: a scientist is a bloke with glasses wearing a lab coat; an engineer is another man in blue overalls who fixes the parents' car. Few would suggest Marie Curie or Crick and Watson, Brunel or Whittle. Perhaps the food industry needs a slightly less eccentric figure than Magnus Pike for the 21st century -- although if the figure makes science popular, who cares? How about the recent US Nobel prize winners Richard Axel and Linda Buck, for their work on the sense of smell.

The consensus view seems to be that while change in the nature of courses is probably overdue, academic rigour will need to remain a central part of the skills offered by food scientists. If food science is expensive in schools, then it is even more so at university, with the laboratories and specialist facilities required. However, some iconoclasts are starting to question whether it might be time for courses to concentrate on the theory and leave the industry to provide the practical side.

There is a potential lifeline for food science in the curriculum review currently under way, which is expected to put more emphasis on vocational education. This could be just the opportunity the industry needs to lobby government, which already sees the inherent dangers of losing the UK's strong research and development base.

Dr Sarah Ball, chief executive of The Science Council, suggests that investment in food science could be a practical vehicle by which government starts to restore the strength of the nation's core science base in schools.

And the industry itself could certainly do more to help things. Proudlove claims that one of the main problems with the product development coursework at AS-level is in relating it to industrial practices and in getting information about industrial processes. Around half the students that start, drop out before the A2 stage, he says.

Food science teachers also claim they would benefit from having more industrial partners. Ken Spears, who teaches food science at St Martin's School in Brentwood in Essex, says: "There is a slight reluctance for [food companies] to get involved in schools."

However, Hebblethwaite -- probably with his company's heavily criticised Get Active campaign in mind -- raises the problem for manufacturers of being viewed cynically as only getting involved to exert undue influence on school children about their products.

Paul Wilkinson, chairman of Improve, the food and drink sector skills council, says: "Without innovation we cannot compete. Food technologists are at the core of this delivery and we must ensure there are enough of them and they are first class. Otherwise we risk the loss of our industry to low-cost countries."

What the industry has to do now is sell the exciting opportunities of working in the food industry to students, and sell the industry's importance to government. FM

Related topics: People & Skills