A little over 30 seconds into my interview with Cindy Stewart, the new president of the US Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), she first mentions ‘community’. It’s a word that reoccurs many times – alongside the term ‘global partnership’ – in our conversation about the goals of her presidency.
Both ideas are neatly summed up in the first of the IFT’s five core values: ‘Community’. According to the organisation’s values statement: “We believe in the power of community. We collaborate across borders and scientific disciplines with public and private institutions. We are a convenor of people and ideas.”
Those are the themes that will guide our conversation and reveal how the Chicago-based institute, founded in 1939, plans to advance the science of food and its application across the globe.
It’s immediately clear that, for Stewart, ‘community’ is no mere empty concept. It encapsulates the fellowship that has guided her career.
The new president has been an active member of IFT since her undergraduate days 25 years ago, she tells me during our conversation at the IFT’s Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Las Vegas at the end of June.
“No matter where I lived or where I worked around the world, IFT has been a constant,” she says. “It’s really helped me develop not only a professional network but also it feels like an extended family, especially after being involved for so long.
“IFT is the community [that word again] of professionals in the science of food. And, it’s about promoting sound science and having that sound science make a difference and an impact in people’s lives.”
The people to which Stewart refers are both food industry professionals and global consumers. Within the food industry, IFT aims to help professionals develop their careers – as it has helped Stewart over the years – to enable them to make greater contributions to the organisations in which they operate.
Global food sector (back to top)
It aims to develop people’s knowledge and skills while enabling them to forge professional connections within the US and worldwide, in keeping with the increasingly global food sector.
Outside the food industry, part of the IFT’s mission is to focus its members’ skills in creating a world where science and innovation are viewed universally as essential to a safe, nutritious and sustainable food supply for everyone.
“As a global community of food professionals, we truly have had and can continue to have a positive impact on the health and safety of people across the globe,” says Stewart.
To progress that mission, the IFT funded a 90-minute feature film – Food Evolution – which makes a passionate plea to base the debate about food science, with a particular focus on genetic modification (GM), on sound science rather than prejudice.
Under the independent direction of Oscar nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy and presented by US TV science star and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the film explores the myths and science surrounding GM technology and motives of opponents and supporters.
It’s important IFT is not perceived as a trade body or in any way defending the food industry, Stewart insists. “We are a community of scientists and we want the IFT to continue to be the voice of one of the world’s most valuable and important resources, which are scientists.”
So, is science under attack in the US, I ask? There is a slight pause after I highlight US president Donald Trump’s decision to cut government-funded science projects and to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Stewart’s response is measured: “We have a continuing challenge,” she concedes.
“I don’t think it’s a new challenge. Certainly, in the science of food, it’s a challenge to ensure we are communicating the case to promote scientific discovery and translational research. But that’s the only way that you can continue to have innovation and continue to solve challenges – particularly for us in food science.”
Challenges to food science (back to top)
The assault on science is one of several challenges that Stewart optimistically also identifies as opportunities for IFT. Another is helping to feed the world’s burgeoning population, predicted by the United Nations to reach 9.7bn by 2050.
For both challenges, Stewart believes the IFT’s growing global network can play a pivotal role. “Global partnerships, given the challenges facing the food sector, are invaluable. It’s one of the really important things we can do. We have many current global partnerships and we want to continue to develop new ones.”
Prime partnership examples include: the UK Institute of Food Science & Technology and the Chinese, Australian and Canadian institutes covering food science and technology.
“With all of these groups, and others, we partner with them to disseminate scientific content between organisations and we provide access to our certified food scientist programme and pilot joint membership opportunities to help bring that global community even more partners.”
IFT experts often meet to prepare critical reviews and scientific consensus papers, with the conclusions filtering down to consumer publications, says Stewart.
The institute’s website – ift.org – also features multi-media content, including videos, designed to help commentators and key opinion formers get to grips with complex food science and nutrition topics.
The scale of the challenges in the food sector – particularly the interaction between food, nutrition and health – needs a transdisciplinary approach from multiple organisations coming together to address the problem, according to Stewart. “The challenge for us is figuring out the right partnerships to pursue.”
Global food Traceability Center (back to top)
One practical example of the IFT’s global reach is its Global Food Traceability Center, comprising advisers and several leading organisations worldwide.
Launched several years ago to probe the global food supply chain, the organisation was updated last year with a seafood traceability financial tool, designed to help organisations across the food chain assure the authenticity of global supply chains.
“We tend to think there’s a cost in traceability but there is a lot of benefit in implementing traceability in the system,” says Stewart. “It’s about tracing the origin of seafood and that can be used in many different situations – such as challenges to food safety and product recalls.”
Stewart took up the presidency from British food scientist John Coupland on September 1 2017 and will serve for one year before becoming immediate past president for 12 months.
It is a role she combines with the day job; working for DuPont Nutrition & Health as the global cultures, food protection technology and innovation leader.
So, how would Stewart wish her presidency to be remembered? The first thing she mentions is harnessing the diversity of talent within the organisation to enable IFT to have the maximum global impact.
Then, she returns to her favourite word: ”I want our IFT community to continue to be one where members feel really valued; they feel respected and feel their needs are met and they can be successful in their career and their lives.”
Don’t miss our exclusive video interview with past president of the IFT Professor Colin Dennis, about his thoughts on the IFT17 Food Expo in Las Vegas.
- JOB TITLE: IFT president (voluntary role) and DuPont global cultures and food protection technology & innovation leader
- AGE: 49
- DOMESTICS: Married to Todd Dechter
- CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Her current role with DuPont, leading a global team of research scientists in the discovery, identification, research and development of novel starter cultures and food protection ingredients to enhance food and beverage fermentation processes, improve product quality, food safety, food preservation and food sustainability. Previously worked with PepsiCo as senior director of advanced research in New York among other roles. A globally recognised food microbiologist, Stewart holds two degrees in food science from the University of Delaware and a PhD in food science from Rutgers University.
- AWAY FROM WORK: Enjoys global travel and visited the Galapagos Islands several years ago. Self-confessed “adrenaline junkie” who enjoys riding rollercoasters and zip-lining.