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Processing is a dirty word – but we’ll need more of it to feed the world

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 22-Feb-2012

Related topics: Processing

Processing has become a dirty word, but we are going to need more processing, not less, in order to feed a growing population, according to professor and head of food science at Penn State University John Floros.

Speaking at last week’s Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Orlando, Florida, Floros said that the global food system has developed through many advances in science and technology, allowing the food supply to double during the second half of the 20th century, as the global population also doubled.

“Over the next 50 years we will have to produce as much food as we ever have in the whole of human history. We can’t do that without scientific advances,” Floros said. “…We have to do this with less and less land and less and less water.”

“Wherever food comes from, whether it’s local or industrial, to feed more people we will need more food science and technology, not less…Processing has become a dirty word, but we simply cannot have a safe food supply without processing.”

Processing encompasses many technologies that variously provide foods with longer shelf life, allow them to be transported long distances, enhance their palatability, and many reduce the risk of foodborne pathogen contamination. Floros said that when we think of food, we may imagine a supermarket or a restaurant, but many people in the world still have to work a lot harder for their food.

“Before we throw [the current food system] away – because some people do want to throw it away – we had better think very carefully about what we are going to replace it with. Our global food network is the way it is for a reason,” he said.

But increasingly consumers are demanding less processing.

He joked: “Consumers want whole foods – as opposed to part foods; they want organic foods – as opposed to inorganic foods.”

Seriously, however, he said that food scientists need to learn to communicate better with the public, and address consumer fears.

Better science communication

“Our food supply is safe, nutritious and abundant; we shouldn’t forget that. The consumer also demanded it,” he said. “…The food system has to provide in some cases not very safe food products, like raw milk, because the consumer demands it. One thing we haven’t done much about is the fear of the consumer, and the consumer has fears.”

Floros said that food scientists often fail to come out on one side of an issue or another, because the scientific process is not black and white, and they are aware that scientific perspectives are always on a continuum.

“I think we need a much bigger effort of communicating to the consumer what the food system is all about. We are not doing such a good job of that,” he said. “… Pressures come from the consumer that jeopardize food safety. We have to make decisions very carefully because consumers don’t always know the full picture.”