Spotlight on Food and Nutrition Careers: Kate Halliwell

Kate Halliwell MIFST, Chief Scientific Officer, Food and Drink Federation (FDF)

Professional background

My first degree was in biochemistry, and after dabbling in different jobs as well as extensive travel, I went back to studying this time an MSc in nutrition. This led me to a role at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and I worked in the government’s nutrition policy team for about 5 years. I moved to FDF in 2011, initially managing the nutrition policy team. I now have responsibility for our nutrition, food safety and food labelling policy teams, as well as for a small regulatory team who provide technical support to a variety of smaller food trade associations.

What was your journey into the food industry, and your motivation to join the IFST Food Science and Nutrition Special Interest Group?

I was always interested in food but didn’t really think about a role in the food industry until I worked for government. My first policy area was the traffic light label and involved talking to a wide range of companies with a lot of different views on what should go on a label! It was a fascinating opportunity and gave me a great insight into the important role that food companies play in helping government deliver nutrition policy, in a really practical way. The role at FDF appealed because of the huge amount of engagement with a wide range of companies. I joined IFST and this SIG when I took on my current volunteer role, as I wanted to broaden out my network and to give something back to the brilliant food community.

As a nutritionist, working within the food industry, what do you consider to be some of the most significant challenges you encounter, and how do you address them?

I think a lack of trust in the industry to ‘do the right thing’ is a big problem and is leading to a very polarised debate on health. The industry is often demonised in the media, and yet the people I work with (nutritionists and food scientists) are passionate people working daily to make sure we have a safe, secure food supply chain. I fundamentally believe that to keep our food safe, and improve its nutritional value, everyone needs to work together - government, academics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and food companies. We all have different knowledge and experience and we’ll come up with better solutions to problems if we’re all pulling in the same direction. The best way to build trust is to be as open as we can be, including to challenge. I think there’s probably more that can be done in the transparency space - whether that’s including some standardised measure of health in annual reports, or ensuring conflicts of interest are always robustly and openly managed.

What emerging trends or developments, in the field of food science and nutrition, do you find particularly exciting or impactful?

There’s so many - that’s partly why I love chairing the webinars the SIG runs! One of the inspiring things about working with food scientists and nutritionists, in the industry, is the passion they bring to the subject which shines through in conversations, whether that’s a new crystalline structure of salt to help reformulation, biofortification of crops, fermented protein or consumer behaviour trials.  

How do you keep yourself updated with the latest advancements in food science and nutrition research?

I’m lucky that, as part of my job, I get invited to a lot of conferences which helps keep me up to date. Being a member of IFST and Nutrition Society also means I have access to a wealth of information, from overviews to deep dive research. 

Please elaborate on how your membership in the IFST Special Interest Group on food science and nutrition enhances your professional development and networking.

Like a lot of people, I have a busy job, and it can be difficult to prioritise professional development when there’s a full in-box and deadlines looming. I find being a member of the SIG forces me to pause and look-up from the day to day. The SIG is made up of people with a range of backgrounds, and jobs, which means that someone will always mention something I’ve not heard of or look at a topic in a different way. It also means that at bigger IFST events you have a group of friendly people you know you can chat to, which can help in a big room, if you’ve come on your own.

For individuals aspiring to become food scientists and nutritionists in the food industry, what advice would you offer, and how can they best engage with professional membership organisations, like IFST?

Go for it! It’s an amazing industry to work for, with lots of opportunities from start-ups to global multinationals. People move around between companies and roles, so I wouldn’t worry too much about finding that perfect job initially - just jump in and find out on the job if you actually prefer regulation, product development or consumer communication. Similarly, with IFST I would say just give it a go. Find a SIG you like the look of and follow them or attend a regional meeting and start to build your own network. Once you start, it’s much easier to work out what’s helpful for you.