Q&A: IFST creates COVID-19 Advisory Group

Posted: 19 May 2020 | | 1 comment

New Food finds out more about IFST’s COVID-19 focused advisory group in an interview with Dr Rachel Ward, Scientific Policy Director.


In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) put together an advisory group to help address some of the challenges and questions arising. Here, Bethan Grylls holds a Q&A with the Dr Rachel Ward, Scientific Policy Director, IFST, about the Institute’s response to the coronavirus. 

Q: Why create the COVID-19 advisory group?

A: The Institute is familiar with the creation of various committees and advisory groups, with several groups in place already addressing the key areas around food science and technology, food educations, careers and professional development. These include the Education Committee, the Professional Development Group, and the Scientific Committee. The COVID-19 advisory group is born from the latter and includes a small but diverse selection of experts with experience spanning across several sectors.

A small group enables a close focus and fast conversation. We look at what’s happening, what it means for our members in the UK and the wider global food system. The idea is to identify the knowledge our members and wider stakeholders need and collate it into one place.

There’s a lot of speculation, both in the scientific community and elsewhere. The IFST COVID-19 Advisory Group have been established to seek out trusted sources of information that use sound science and translate the latest science into practical advice to allow the food sector to make the right decisions and ensure we can continue to produce and access safe and wholesome food.

Q: How did you choose the members?

A: It was crucial to find experts who could cover all bases. The advisory group includes people who are IFST members but also members of other professional bodies too – this is not a time to be competitive, this is the time to work together.

The IFST’s core focus is on the UK, but we have members across the globe. The food system is inherently global. There are some best practices which are relevant wherever you are. For example, the best disinfection process on stainless steel will be the same in the UK as it is in Brazil or Beijing.

The COVID-19 Advisory Group includes:

Chair: Chris Gilbert-Wood (also Chair of IFST Scientific Committee)

Members: Ivan Bartolo, Sue Bell, Julian Cooper, Sterling Crew, Sam Jennings, Alex Kent, Andy Kerridge, Peter Littleton, Louise Manning, John Points, Denis Treacy, Peter Wareing.

From the IFST Team: Natasha Medhurst and Rachel Ward.

Q: What kinds of questions have you received from industry?

A: To start with, we knew the key areas that would be impacted because we have all worked in the food sector in some way – and this focused our initial outputs.

Based on that we began getting other questions, so we created guidance for specific groups, for example consumers, smaller food companies, larger companies and even distribution drivers. These can be found on our IFST COVID-19 knowledge hub.

To further support creation of relevant guidance and to input into wider UK discussions relevant to food and food business operations,  we have a weekly call with representatives from the Food Standards Agency, Food Standards Scotland and Defra where we share question and answers.

In terms of the kinds of questions we’ve had, they range from ‘when can someone come back to work in a food facility when they’ve had the virus?’ to ‘how frequently should I clean surfaces?’ and ‘what’s the difference between best before and use-by dates on food?’

The latter is a question asked by both consumers and some in the food service business. To expedite, some have repurposed their food business from a restaurant, making fresh food that they sell on the day, to essentially being a ready-meal manufacturer making pre-packed food that’s intended to be frozen, chilled, reheated, etc. This kind of food product needs careful and detailed labelling for allergens, a use-by date, and clear storage and re-heating or cooking instructions.

So we’ve been developing and publishing guidance for those businesses: ‘How great it is you can keep going, but perhaps you don’t know x, y, z….’ Because they’ve never done this kind of type of food production before and maybe not at this scale either, and we know there’s not enough guidance out there for them. It’s a case of flagging up the things they may not have thought about and describing some good practices for them to follow.

We have also had questions from industry about whether procedures need to be changed, for example cleaning or refrigeration. Our key message has been simple, but important: Keep doing what you have always done. Continue practicing good food hygiene procedures, make sure you are following all of your normal risk management processes, and if you do change anything, do what you would usually do when you make a change – redo your HACCP risk assessment and confirm your food safety controls continue to be effective.

Never before have the technical professionals in your food businesses been so important; they are the only ones competent enough and trained sufficiently to help you to move flexibly and quickly without impacting food safety or compliance. 

These experts are probably not going to be on restaurant or smaller food operations teams, so it is extremely important restaurant owners reach out to access food professionals to support them. IFST have a consultants directory on our website and SALSA has a list of professional mentors accredited by IFST, who are offering free 30 minutes of advice. Don’t ever think you are asking a silly question, because all of us would rather you ask. To help us support you, please get in touch with your COVID-19 questions by email at [email protected].

Q: Do you believe the outbreak has highlighted any issues in the global food supply chain?

A: It’s all about resilience, isn’t it? Resilience for me is always a little bit like a string shopping bag; it all comes together beautifully, providing the holes aren’t too big and the strings all stay connected, and it functions. But the minute some of the holes get a bit too big or the strings disconnect, it stops functioning as a shopping bag. You don’t always see how big those holes are until they’re, well, very big.

What I mean by this is that I think it has highlighted certain aspects of the current food system which make it rigid or unable to respond flexibly enough. For example,  fixed contractual relationships within value chains make it hard for supply to be shifted between supply channels in this kind of a situation. Food trade between different countries can also be impacted by all sorts of issues, including transport blockages and regulatory compliance differences.

There are a lot of people in the food service industry who produce the items big retailers are crying out for, for example flour, eggs, milk. However, there’s no contractual arrangement for them to jump across quickly, partly because of the way that suppliers are approved and contracts are arranged. There are also safety considerations to take into account, for example beef burgers produced for the service industry have a shorter shelf life which would make them unsuitable for sale into retail shops.

Keep up to date!

As the food & beverage sector continues to combat new daily challenges during the global coronavirus pandemic, New Food’s COVID-19 hub collates the latest news and views from manufacturers, retailers, authorities and associations from around the world.

Personally, I think our food system resilience is not helped because our government is disjointed regarding food and food policy. The UK government does not have an in-depth sight and understanding of our national food system, its supply and resource needs, interdependencies between different elements of the system and the potential for unintended consequences. So there is an real opportunity to make improvements here, to enhance resilience. And we have talked to government a lot about building a framework to understand the interdependencies that underpin the resilience of the current system.

No one anticipated this crisis, but if we build a continency plan that has resilience at its core we can ensure we can respond better next time.

We are months into lockdown and still food is not a priority of central government. They’re applauding the industry as heroes, but we’re not seeing any mention of a food- supply-related briefing.

We will come out of this situation and then lunge straight into Brexit, with no delay. So why is the food system not one of the top priorities in Cabinet? We do not understand this blind spot in UK national policy and priorities. And that is the shared view of the whole Advisory Group.

Q: Do you believe we will take on board the lessons learnt from this to create a better food system?

A: The food system is highly complex and continuously changing throughout the year because of the different seasonal availability of foodstuffs across the world. The future food system is very important and needs some appropriate and strategic consideration which can accommodate such a complex system.

We need a UK-wide food strategy. If we do not put this in place with cross-government departmental and agency engagement, we’ll experience complications and potential disruption. Granted, the food supply will still operate, but we won’t be able to leverage improvements in technology or learnings from this current pandemic.

We have a lot of new technology coming to the fore and without deliberate support it won’t be able to be implemented by the UK food system. Around 95 percent of UK food operations are SMEs that struggle to invest in new technology – be it digital systems, equipment or processes. The future food system will not achieve its full potential if we don’t have investment for those SMEs to apply technologies to help them to be efficient, safe and sustainable – core parts of food security.

Having food security means accessing sufficient, affordable, safe and nutritious food. Therefore, along with making safe and nutritious food, some societal consideration is needed such as minimising the shockingly high reliance on food banks we now see in the UK.

I do not believe we can achieve food security or resilience without applying science and technology to ensure we can produce enough food without destroying our limited planetary resources. For example, deciphering the best way to grow highly nutritious food without affecting soil condition or depleting water courses.

Q: What will happen to the COVID-19 group once the pandemic is over?

A: As with any ‘task and finish’ group created to address a specific topic, the advisory group will assimilate back into IFST Scientific Committee activities until the next topic pops up and we need to get an agile little group to work on it and translate it to support innovation and implementation of best practices. Our food professional members are at the core of what we do to build capability across the profession by collaborating, sharing knowledge and making it readily available to inspire excellence and trust in food. That’s what we do.


Rachel WardDr Rachel Ward is the current Scientific Policy Director at the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST). Rachel has more than 30 years’ experience in risk management and standards for consumer goods, mainly in the food chain, covering emerging issues, contaminants and residues, allergens, labelling and claims to ensure effective risk protection and robust regulatory compliance.

Rachel has a wide experience in regulatory affairs and quality assurance and was the lead risk manager for PepsiCo Europe on food, promotional toys and novel ingredients. Since becoming an independent consultant nine years ago, she has worked on various food and food supplements risk management, regulatory, QA and supply chain projects for SME, larger manufacturers and UK retailers, and is now enjoying the balance between working for IFST and her freelance consultancy work.

One response to “Q&A: IFST creates COVID-19 Advisory Group”

  1. Denis Treacy says:

    It has been my pleasure to work with Rachel in this team, with every minute of her 30 years of experience shining through our 2 per week Video Calls. Rachel is a major asset to both the IFST and to the UK Food Supply Chain itself.

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