Big Interview: Colin Dennis, professor of persuasion

Colin Dennis has put food science first in his career

Professor Colin Dennis talks to Food Manufacture about how he has devoted his career to promoting food science.

If you are wondering why positive messages about the food industry are so scarce in the wider media, just ask Professor Colin Dennis.

“I was interviewed for a radio show recently, and I managed to make a number of points about how most food products today wouldn’t have been made without the help of science,” he explains.

“But, when it aired, all I got was two minutes. The rest of the programme was about food adverts – and the host’s mother-in-law!”

With a career in food science that spans more than 45 years, however, Dennis is not one to be deterred by the vagaries of radio broadcasting.

Having just completed a term as president of the US Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) – the first non-American to have held the post – Dennis is now helping the organisation with the launch of a documentary film aimed at giving consumers a greater understanding of how food is produced.

It’s all part of a wider mission to give food science the credit he feels it deserves.

“We commissioned the film because we wanted to encourage a conversation around the science of food,” says Dennis.

“If only people would look at the science, rather than be swayed by the media and that includes social media they’ll be in a better position to make informed food choices.”

The film, called Food Evolution, was directed by Oscar nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy, and narrated by US astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It premiéred in New York last month.

“We gave the director the brief, but told him that he had the final say over content. After a great deal of research on his part, he chose to focus on genetic modification,” Dennis says.

Science around food’ (back to top)

“Our aim is to get the film distributed and viewed as widely as possible. We believe this is a very good start at raising the profile of the science around food.”

Having been a prominent figure in food science for more than 45 years (see box), the former Campden BRI director general is clearly confident about the contribution it has played, and continues to play, in feeding a rapidly increasing global population.

Yet, he acknowledges that both scientists and industry should be more willing to engage in conversations about the use of the “sound science” that goes into food production.

“There needs to be more transparency in the food industry in order to build trust with consumers,” he says.

“More than ever, consumers want to know about where ingredients come from and what processes are being used in the making of food.”

Dennis believes many of the “dichotomies” concerning how food is made and consumed need to be better understood.

“We always hear about big versus small, local versus global, craft versus mass-produced – but we should be embracing the idea that, regardless of where and how food is sourced, science has played a part in its production.”

He feels consumers need to better understand that processed food, and even what some may call highly-processed food, is actually essential in delivering a healthy diet.

“We wouldn’t be able to preserve products for them to be transported around the world otherwise,” he explains.

Individual responsibility (back to top)

While Dennis feels education is important, he claims to be a big fan of individual responsibility – particularly in regard to overconsumption and the ongoing obesity epidemic.

So, how does he feel about the government’s obesity plan, which calls for a 20% reduction in sugar content in food and drink in four years?

“I think it’s important that nobody demonises individual foods or individual companies, because at the end of the day, the responsibility is with the consumer,” he suggests.

However, he maintains that both the government and industry have a role to play in addressing all issues, “whether it’s obesity, food safety, sustainability, or anything else”.

And this is where he believes the value of science comes back in. Dennis says there has to be ongoing collaboration between industry and government if both sides are to benefit –something that was borne out in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.

“Post horsemeat, I believe the Food Standards Agency has shown greater willingness to engage with industry to try to resolve issues.”

Such collaborations are likely to be even more important as the UK’s withdrawal from the EU draws nearer. Dennis believes Brexit shouldn’t have any food safety implications “as long as government legislates appropriately”.

He is more concerned, however, about Brexit’s impact on European-funded science projects.

“If that source of funding is going to disappear with Brexit, there will be an onus on the UK government to fill, or at least contribute to, that gap, and find ways to fund very valuable work.”

Partnership is important (back to top)

Again here, he thinks partnership is important. “Industry needs to recognise it has a role to play in ensuring that there is sufficient sound science to underpin the technologies it uses and the products it makes,” Dennis adds.

Even before the consideration of Brexit, the regulatory frameworks food producers have to navigate if they want to increase global trade can often be a minefield.

With this in mind, Dennis says the International Food Information Service – of which he is chairman of the board of trustees – is set to launch a searchable database of regulations in the EU, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“Called Escalex, it will give manufacturers an efficient and effective way of accessing a whole range of regulations,” he explains.

And expect those regulations to change as food science evolves. Dennis says he is enthusiastic about the development of food microbiology, and in particular the application of whole genome sequencing and meta-genomics in being able to trace and track potential food safety issues along a supply chain.

A second area of food science that excites Dennis is the growing interest in the microbiome in relation to health and nutrition.

“There’s an increasing awareness that it’s not just food composition, but also the structure and texture of foods that can impact digestion and the uptake of nutrients in the body,” he says.

He concedes there’s still much to learn in both areas, but suggests that there’s never been a better time for scientists and technologists to be involved in the food sector.

“There are challenges ahead in terms of reducing waste, ensuring safety, and providing good nutrition. But scientists thrive on such challenges, so it’s all positive.”

So, there’s the potential for lots of good food science news in the future. Let’s just hope the next radio show host is much more willing to embrace it.

Meanwhile, don’t miss our exclusive video interview with Dennis, filmed after he chaired Food Manufacture’s 2016 food safety conference. 

 

Professor Colin Dennis

JOB TITLE: Fellow and immediate past-president of the US Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)

AGE: 70

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Dennis came to prominence at Campden BRI, where he was appointed director general in 1988 – a position he held for 21 years.

In addition to his role at the IFT, he is fellow and past president of the Institute of Food Science & Technology, chairman of the board of trustees of the International Food Information Service and of the research committee of Flanders Foods in Belgium.

He also serves on the general advisory committee on science at the Food Standards Agency, as a governor of both the British Nutrition Foundation and the Royal Agricultural University, and is on the board of the National Skills Academy.

Dennis was awarded a CBE for services to the agri-food industry in 2009.

AWAY FROM WORK: When not spending time with his family, Dennis enjoys playing golf in Portugal, where he has a holiday home.

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