BIOTECHNOLOGIST Janet Bainbridge is an authority on, among other things, Quorn. This unusual expertise is about to come in to its own as food minister Jeff Rooker has just asked her to chair the government's advisory committee on novel foods and processes, writes Alison Utley.
As professor of biotechnology and food science at Teesside University, Professor Bainbridge's interest in food safety has drawn her in to the debates on food scares caused by BSE and E. coli but her special knowledge of novel foods is also at the centre of much public concern.
Although genetically altered food products are becoming more commonplace on supermarket shelves, the buying public is still uneasy about new food technologies.
A recent NOP poll to testconsumer attitudes about biotechnology found that 87 per cent of respondents were undecided about buying products labelled "the result of modern biotechnology".
Fewer than one-third of those surveyed were fairly or extremely confident that controls on biotechnology in food and agriculture were adequate.
Food manufacturers are painfully aware of the public concerns about biotechnology. Neville Craddock, environmental affairs manager at Nestle UK, said the company's ultimate success depended on one thing and one thing only: "That is that consumers accept the technology and buy our products. Without that we are wasting our time."
Quorn is now established as a safe and healthy alternative to meat, but Professor Bainbridge's committee will be looking at other, less well-understood, products, such as green tea extract.
Food preservation methods, particularly irradiation, will also come under the spotlight. "The food industry is so massive today that if things do go wrong it can be a recipe for disaster," she said.
The novel foods committee is developing procedures for assessing foods from genetically modified tomatoes to plant extracts and fat replacers.
Professor Bainbridge says the public should be fully informed about changes to the way food is processed and she cites food labelling as an unresolved issue.
Some food components such as maize for instance can be modified for insect resistance or herbicide tolerance and then used as a component in flour without the buyer knowing.
"My ambition is to spread the word of science to as many people as possible, particularly to women,"she said.
"I want to take the mystique out of science."