Cargill exec: Why millennial employees are vital to the future of food science

To a food scientist, there's nothing sexier than talking about how a food is made. To anyone else, particularly the millennials needed to bolster the workforce, that sexiness can dissipate rapidly.

In an industry with an aging workforce, food science undergraduate enrollment numbers dipped in IFT-approved food science programs in the U.S. from 2014 to 2016, according to OPUS International (4,218 undergraduates to 4,095 undergraduates). After years of enrollment uptick, the industry could face a shortage of educated, qualified talent which could result in a recruiting battle for the best and the brightest.

"I'd have to say that maybe food processing isn't the sexiest industry out there," Mike Robach, the vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs at Cargill, told Food Dive in an in-depth interview. "I mean, it's one of the essentials of life," he later added. "We have to eat. And so I think it's important that people kind of embrace that responsibility."

Milennials enrolled in food science programs
Opus International, Inc.

Between millennial engagement, industry transparency, and FDA regulation, Robach broke down key industry questions from Food Dive in a Q&A at a recent Grocery Manufacturers Association event:

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Food Dive: Do you think that having more millennials working in the food industry would help better reach millennials as consumers?

Mike Robach: Absolutely. I think one of the challenges we have and I was actually talking to a couple of folks from different academic institutions. And they're saying that food science enrollment is dropping. It’s not increasing and that’s concerning to me. Because I think the more people we get involved in the industry, the more they can understand it and then the more they communicate. We know that with this millennial generation, they like to talk amongst themselves. And so it becomes important that we have spokespeople who understand what the industry is doing, being able to connect with their peers.

FD: Why do you think it's dropping?

Robach: I think because when we talk about food science, all of a sudden that maybe connotates something other than what it is. And people think "Oh, that’s just processed foods," and "Oh, you’re just making something out of nothing," as opposed to really processing wholesome foods. So, I think there’s a misconception as to what food science is all about.

FD: And do you think the career trajectory for people could be changing as well? Maybe flocking to startups instead of larger, more established (companies)? People even in food science degrees, where they're heading. I don't know if that's just a general trend across the generation, they're flocking to startups instead of large companies?

Robach: I’d have to say that maybe food processing isn’t the sexiest industry out there. And so yeah, there are a lot of people who thinking, "Hey, I want to be a techie, or I want to work in Silicon Valley, or I want to work in the northeast quarter," something like that. And they’re not necessarily thinking about food production and the importance of food around the world. I mean, it’s one of the essentials of life. We have to eat. And so I think it’s important that people kind of embrace that responsibility.

Mike Robach, VP of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs on future of food science
Mike Robach

FD: You mentioned that part of the job in the industry is to quiet critics. Do you think that as more transparency continues that the message will be more about not defending what the industry is doing, but keeping the communication flowing?

Robach: I think what it’s about is not necessarily silencing or quieting the critics. But it’s about telling the whole story. And I think the industry has not done a very good job of that in the past. And I think that’s our big opportunity, is to really open up and show people how we make food. I mean we’ve done a number of programs. We did a program with Oprah a few years ago in one of our beef operations, we did a Frontline piece in one of our turkey operations a year and a half ago where we just took the cameras right into the live site all the way through the processing plant, showed them every step in the process. It was really demystifying what happens. Again, we have a great opportunity to really be more transparent in this whole process.

FD: But even with efforts like that, how do you break across the stigma? When people think of a large food processing company, they’re not thinking, honestly, not the most trustworthy company.

Robach: I think that’s where we have to bring third parties in. That’s why we brought Frontline in, and we brought the Oprah show in. Oprah, who demonized ground beef, we took her through a process where they saw a feedlot they saw the cattle come into the plant. They went through the whole harvesting and grinding of the meat into a hamburger. You saw a steer one day; you saw a package of a hamburger the next day … We did the same with the turkey with Frontline. So it’s not just about us telling our story, it’s telling it in a way that’s believable.

FD: You mentioned academics working with the industry too and helping break through some of the shoddy science that you hear. A lot of companies working with scientists have been called out for various actions. There’s the big Coca-Cola thing with the Global Energy Balance Network. How do you break across that too?

Robach: And that’s tough because we do support a lot of academic research. And academic researchers need to get funding to do the work that they do. So we just have to be very careful that when we’re funding a project that's based on a proposal that they’ve given us, to really identify a question that needs to be answered. And if we think it’s important for the industry to have the question answered, then we fund it. That doesn’t taint the research. We’re not directing the research; we’re funding the research. And I think we have to get people to understand how that happens.

FD: Off of the Mars question that somebody asked (following the panel), about what they’re doing, an "occasional use" kind of food label. Could you expand a little bit about why you think that’s not the most effective way?

Robach: I think because people are so different. And if you’re putting something on a label like that, you’re generalizing. And you’re maybe speaking for only 50-60% of the population. And frankly who are we imposing those kinds of values on the consuming public? I think people get to make choices. They get to decide what they want to eat, when they want to eat it. So giving them the information as to what they’re eating then I think allows them to make those choices. Let’s not create a nanny state in telling people what they can and can’t do. Let’s let people make choices and kind of live their food culture.

FD: Do you think that if every food label had that kind of recommendation that would alienate people from foods more so than what this is doing?

Robach: I think it starts to scare people. I don’t think people need to be scared. They need to understand what’s in their food and they need to embrace it and make their own personal choices.

FD: People are already scared. I think the three letters "GMO" really scare consumers. How do you think we can effectively communicate that?

Robach: The GMO issue to me is one about really getting people to understand what’s the consumer benefit. We can talk about the safety and we’ve gone through safety assessments in Europe. We’ve gone through safety assessments in the U.S. in China, other parts of the world. Genetically modified ingredients that are out there today are perfectly safe. I think what we have to do then is to really get consumers to understand what’s the benefit for the consumer from a food security standpoint, from a food safety standpoint, and from a more complete nutritional standpoint. Some of the great innovations are really bringing in essential nutrients into products that don’t normally have those nutrients. So I think golden rice is a perfect example.

FD: What’s an easy way for companies to express that message? I know you talked a bit about the Oprah thing.

Robach: I think we have to do more with the media in getting them interested in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and work with the NGOs to really create an environment of more open education. Again, if we got more millennials maybe involved in food science, this would be easier to communicate. But that having been said, I think we have to do a better job working with the media in giving them information that they can use to create some of these stories. And maybe working with the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, some of the more innovative programming out there to get the message there.

FD: What do you think is the most important FDA regulation that hasn’t happened yet?

Robach: I think that the big issue around FSMA is gonna be the ability of FDA to make sure that the smaller producers and the smaller manufacturers are compliant. There’s an exemption for some very small people, and I think that was a mistake. I get concerned about that because you see a lot of these local stories generating. We still have people out there drinking raw milk. We still have people making cheese from raw milk and creating listeria outbreaks, campylobacter outbreaks, E. coli outbreaks. That concerns me, that that flies underneath the radar screen but is creating a disproportionate amount of public health concern.

Filed Under: Food Safety Marketing
Top image credit: Flickr user Peronimo