Thought for Food Blog

Interview with John Ruff, Immediate Past President, IFT

John Ruff is Immediate Past President of Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). During his 36-year career with Kraft and the former General Foods, he headed R&D for International and North American businesses where he successfully integrated the technical operations of numerous acquisitions, established global centers of expertise and led a worldwide advisory council consisting of external experts who have helped guide Kraft’s health and wellness initiatives.

John Ruff | IFIS Publishing

John recently served on the Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee on strategies to reduce sodium intake. He is a past president of the International Life Sciences Institute, past chair of the Food Processors Association (NFPA) and a fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) in the United Kingdom.

John received his M.A. in Biochemistry and a B.A. in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

In your opinion, what has been the most significant development(s) in food science, food technology and nutrition in the last five years?

Knowledge in science increases exponentially and each new scientific study serves as a building block that contributes to a broader body of work; food science and nutrition are no exception. Food Science is also becoming ever more multidisciplinary - everything from aquaculture to veterinary science to nutrition science. All of this is increasing the complexity that food scientists have to deal with since the science of food touches all parts of our massive food system.

But there is reason for optimism. I see the most significant development as the convergence in several areas: global supply chain, information technology, and communications. These three important developments are leading to new collaborative opportunities and challenges in food security, food safety and nutrition. For example:

Consumer demands in one side of the world often now create a strain on resources on the other side of the globe.

This rapid convergence of the global supply chain has increased the need and difficulty of developing traceability systems to ensure food safety...but even more rapid developments in IT are helping with solutions.

And the ease of access to information is leading to empowered consumers and demands for transparency. This may be challenging and we need to ensure that consumers get scientifically accurate and relevant information.

What challenges need to be met and obstacles overcome in the next five years?

There are a variety of issues we need to focus on. These include:

  1. Over-nutrition vs under-nutrition are going to important issues over the next 5 to 50 years.
  2. We have to meet the growing demands of 9 billion people by 2050 and that solutions-based conversation needs to begin now.
  3. Ensuring clear, accurate and understandable messages get through the clutter of today’s information channels.
  4. Ensuring food science solutions continue to be developed AND commercialized. A good example is the irradiation opportunity sidelined for 50 years.
  5. Food safety will always be a concern, particularly traceability. (See recent launch of IFT Global Food Traceability Center)

One of the themes at the IFT 2013 Annual Meeting + Food Expo was about the inextricable links between food, water and energy, and how we must prepare for the future. Solutions will no doubt require investment and innovation. Given your background in R&D for Kraft and the former General Foods, do you think the food and drink industry is ready for this challenge?

In developed countries, many food companies are more aware of the challenges of future food, water and energy shortfalls than the majority of the population. They have to deal with economic impact and often operate in countries with severe food insecurity. Energy management, and more recently, water management have become key priorities to food companies. Life cycle analysis and sustainability practices are becoming the norm. The combined efforts and skills of government, academia and industry are needed to meet this challenge.

Clearly more remains to be done but the food industry is fully engaged.

Developing that theme further, presumably you would agree that the study of food science is increasing in real world importance and there is now a widely-recognised need for taking food science to the public? In other words, moving from pure theory to applied practice. Is this happening, is it successful or are there barriers that must be overcome?

Food science is certainly becoming ever more important, but let’s recall that it was born as an APPLIED science some 60 years ago, and food technology has been with us since our ancestors starting cultivating plants 10,000 years ago. While we are seeing increased enrollment in food science programs at US universities, we need consider the risks involved in a long term decline in the number studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. But the demand is still projected to exceed the supply and we need to raise awareness of the importance and role of the profession. Part of the challenge is the unrealistic mantra that we should all grow and eat our own food and don’t need science to solve these issues. The reality is that we live in a fast-paced society and turning the hands of time back is simply not possible.

The biggest barrier to the application of food science lies in these dangerous musings.

Having been involved in food science in numerous different countries, have you noticed any differences, be they practical or attitudinal?

I have lived in six countries and worked as a food scientist in many more. When I first spent time in a new country it appeared to be very different in culture, attitudes and food preferences. But over time, I usually found that there were more commonalities than differences. And over 40 years I've seen travel and global communications reduce these even more. In today’s e connected world, issues that occur in one country can go global in seconds, vs months when I started my career. A case in point is the criticism of processed foods which is virtually universal, even in countries with severe food shortages where food technology could help alleviate the problem.

What do you hope to achieve, promote and advance in the next 12 months?

I have had a busy and eventful year as IFT President and plan to continue to be an ambassador for IFT and our profession. We have much to do to help communicate the role that food science has played in the past, and needs to continue to do in the future, to provide a safe, abundant and nutritious for supply around the world. We need to continue to engage the best minds on this challenge. We need to encourage the best and the brightest to pursue a career in food science. We need to feed the minds that will feed the world.

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