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Food science for all

21-Aug-2006

Food scientists are becoming a rare species in Britain, and things won't change unless schools and food firms start telling young people there is more to food than a supermarket depot.

A more pro-active approach is needed from both the food industry and the government to ensure the UK retains its high reputation for food science.

Thousands of potential scientists are being lost in the UK because of a stripped-down science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) lamented last week.

 

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the food industry. Applicants for food science degree courses have more than halved in the last decade, while Britain's Institute of Food Science and Technology has warned the sector is struggling to fill empty seats.

 

Yet, food science is too important for society to leave it flailing helplessly. It is the very lifeblood of the food industry, the thing that helps manufacturers to cut salt in foods, improve nutritional quality and develop new products.

 

There is an obvious need to get students interested in science. But, to stop the rot completely, one must start at the roots.

 

This does not mean handing out free petri dishes and salmonella samples to five-year-olds. Heavens, just imagine the lawsuits. But it does mean engaging more school children in the origins of food.

 

For the first stage in appreciating the art of food science is understanding where food comes from.

 

The UK as a nation appears to remain fairly ignorant of how food has found its way to the sterile wilderness of the local supermarket, although soaring organic food sales show awareness is rising.

 

A survey released last week by the British Market Research Bureau found that 61 per cent of shoppers were 'unconcerned' about which country their fruit and vegetables were grown in.

 

In the interests of food science alone, Britain's education system should do more to encourage children to question where their food is from. Of course, this also includes how that food is made.

 

Anyone who has either read or seen Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory should know that this does not have to be a dull topic for children.

 

And the time is right to push this now, when one considers the way food issues, such as quality, ingredients and ethics, have been swept into the media spotlight over the last couple of years. Coverage of food has rarely been higher.

 

Britain's current school curriculum does not come close to addressing these fundamental issues. Pupils must wait until they are 14 before they can opt for anything approaching the right area.

 

This is a two-year Food Technology GCSE course, which sounds half promising, but in fact largely contains a mixture of cooking lessons and nutrition advice. It used to be called home economics.

 

The food industry could and should do more to help education authorities in their task. There are various factories, labs and depots that could open their doors to pupils and students, even if only for a couple of hours.

 

And, the industry must help people connect food science with the food and drink they enjoy every day.

 

Food science is a rather mystical term to most consumers. When it does enter the public arena, it can also be for the wrong reasons. Food scientists are too often associated with food scares, whether BSE or benzene in soft drinks, and with practices that are considered 'unnatural', like genetically modified foods.

 

Food scientists do not generally come out of these things looking very cool. But where is the counter-attack?

 

If the industry wants more food scientists, it must be prepared to fight to get them. This means funding for bursaries, marketing campaigns and more communication with young people.

 

How many people know that the Activia yoghurt in their fridges was made possible by famous French scientist Louis Pasteur, who discovered the world's first probiotic bacteria in the 1850s? Ok, it was reportedly an accident, but the point stands.

 

If Britain is to overcome its lack of passion for food science, education authorities and the industry must do more to show why food science matters. It may go unnoticed for now, but it will soon be missed if it disappears.

 

Chris Mercer is editor on BeverageDaily.com and DairyReporter.com. He has also worked freelance for the BBC, Sunday Telegraph and other media. Send any comments to chris.mercer@decisionnews.com .

 

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