Thirty years ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Food and Nutrition Board convened a group of experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss and debate issues related to the food system. Naming it the Food Forum, they launched a dedicated space for those who wanted—and needed—to dialogue but seldom found themselves in the same room.
“The idea was to create an open and neutral place to bring these diverse groups together,” says Food Forum Chair Eric Decker, food science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “At the time of its founding [in 1993], there wasn’t anything like it.”
In the years since, the Food Forum, currently with 37 member experts, has held an abundance of workshops on critical issues related to health, nutrition, food safety, and other topics, and generated authoritative publications and resources—freely available to the public—that address some of the food system’s thorniest challenges.
On November 30, the organization will host a special anniversary symposium to explore key developments in food, nutrition, and agriculture and reflect on how its work has informed research, policy, and industry practice. In the run-up to that event, Decker, the recipient of IFT’s 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award in honor of Nicolas Appert, shares a bit more about the Food Forum’s history, purpose, and impact.
Tell us more about the Food Forum’s role.
The Food Forum is what’s called a “convening activity.” These activities bring people together to discuss topics but don’t make recommendations to any government agency or other organization. Since the Forum’s membership is part industry, part academic, and part government, the purpose is to get them talking together about topics in the food supply so they can identify problems and propose possible solutions.
What have been the broad topical areas the organization has addressed over time?
The first ten years were focused on regulatory issues as they applied to labeling—things like functional foods and health claims. The second ten years focused on food safety. This is when the federal HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points] management system was being implemented to address food safety controls. The Forum hosted many conversations between the FDA and industry at the time. These past ten years, we’ve talked a lot about sustainability and things that impact the food supply like climate change. We’ve been looking at what the barriers are to not only a safe and healthy food supply but to an equitable food supply.
How can the public learn more about the Food Forum’s work?
We have one public workshop a year. All the talks in the workshop are recorded, and the slides are made available on the Food Forum website. Each year the workshop results in the publication of its proceedings.
This month at IFT we are focusing on topics related to health and nutrition. How has the Food Forum addressed these areas recently?
I would point you toward the published proceedings on our website from the past few years, including: Alternative Protein Sources, Challenges and Opportunities for Precision and Personalized Nutrition, and Building a More Sustainable, Resilient, Equitable, and Nourishing Food System.
What would you say the Food Forum’s impact has been over its 30-year history?
I think the impact has been the frank discussions that occur—the ability of industry to better understand the challenges of government and government to better understand the challenges of industry. A big part of the academic role is to do workshops on current topics. We’ve done workshops on precision nutrition, climate change, the microbiome, and much more. The Food Forum is a really important mechanism to help both industry and government catch up with cutting-edge science.
When you look to the future, what would you like to see the Forum take on next?
The membership really drives our discussion topics. Probably my favorite meeting of the year is the one where we decide [what we’re going to tackle next] because there are just so many amazing ideas that come out of it. Going forward, I anticipate we will have a blend of social science topics, like equity and sustainability, and fundamental science topics. I love to sit back and listen as the brilliant ideas roll in.
The Food Forum 30th Anniversary Symposium takes place Thursday, November 30, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. ET. Those interested in attending virtually can register to receive a link. IFT members who would like to learn more about the Food Forum and its upcoming discussion topics can contact Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s chief science and technology officer and IFT’s Food Forum representative member.