Ruth Petran knows her way around the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP).
The 35-year member of IAFP has presented in or led symposia at numerous IAFP annual meetings, received the Fellow Award in 2018, the IAFP Developing Scientist Award in 1987, has served on several award selection committees and is a founding member of the IAFP Affiliate, the Minnesota Food Protection Association.
At the conclusion of July’s IAFP 2021, she assumed
the presidency of the organization, a one-year term that all executive board members eventually assume as they progress through the ranks. But Petran is quick to note that any success from IAFP’s board — which also includes President-elect Michelle Danyluk, Vice President, Jose Emilio Esteban, Secretary Mark Carter, Past President Roger Cook and Affiliate Council Chair Wendy White — is a team effort and includes what she described as the "herculean efforts" of the association’s office staff.
“It’s my role, as it would be everybody else’s, to help make IAFP a success,” she said. “The staff really does the lion's share of the day-to-day business. We're there as advisers, helping to make sure that the business direction is in line with where the members from industry, academia and government need it to be.”
We caught up with Petran, the former research, development and engineering senior corporate scientist and vice president of food safety and public health at Ecolab, and now an independent consultant, to talk about what she hopes to achieve during her time as president, what she enjoyed most at this year’s annual meeting and more.
Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine: What are your goals for the next year as you serve as president of IAFP?
Ruth Petran: A big push for this coming year is going to be whatever it means to emerge from the pandemic. We’ve got to follow the science. And I think that's part of the job of the board, to help guide IAFP in that right direction that's in line with public health and food safety principles. Another thing that was formed in the past year was the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council. The board will support their efforts and make sure that as IAFP goes forward, that we're always as tuned in as we need to be to the diverse needs of our members culturally and globally.
QA: That’s kind of like what you did for this year’s hybrid meeting in Phoenix. You met the needs of members who might not necessarily feel comfortable traveling yet by offering the chance to connect remotely. How do you think the meeting went?RP: We were just thrilled to pieces to be out in the world again interacting kind of normally. And I loved the interaction with other people. I feel like I got to know many more students this year, and overall, it was easier to have those more meaningful conversations. Having been a student eons ago, it's always fun for me to meet the new folks coming up the ranks, so to speak, and learn more about where their focus is and how IAFP can best support them.
QA: Were there any sessions you found particularly insightful or where you learned something new?
RP: As far as scientific insights, I attended a session on the role of sanitation and antimicrobial resistance, and it had a good wide range of speakers. The outcome of all of them was that there really is not that much of a link between the whole process of sanitation, if done properly, and the emergence of antimicrobial resistance. That's a really important message that needs to be promoted and is really in line with the application of science to the real world. There's a lot of deep research going on all the time, but industry needs the “So what? How does this apply to me and my food plant?” That was a good example of a session where there was exploration of what the science says, but also the “how does that apply” to the food company who is trying to make sure that they are not contributing to the challenges from antimicrobial resistance.
QA: What future food industry opportunities or challenges can IAFP play a role in?
RP: The mission of IAFP is to make sure that valid information is promoted widely and is available widely. And that means valid, scientifically based information. If nothing else, the pandemic has certainly shown us that we need and crave credible scientific information. Science is never done because there's always new information that comes out, new aspects, new challenges, etc., to issues that we think we might have solved. I did my first graduate work back in the ’80s on Listeria monocytogenes, and at that point it was an emerging food safety pathogen. We didn’t know a whole lot about it. It was kind of exciting to be working on something novel. But the reality is that we’re still working on it 35 years later. Granted, we’ve come a huge way and learned so much, but there continue to be challenges and the science contributes to trying to solve that. IAFP needs to promote the idea of continuing to strive and learn and support the efforts of scientists.
QA: Overall, what are some of the next big things that you think might impact the industry?
RP: The whole idea of trying to communicate risk is front and center. It's something we need to continue to hone-in on in and get better at. Theoretically, everything can cause issues, but which ones are most key to a particular industry or manufacturing plant or food retail company that they need to make sure they’re focused on? Also, there’s a lot of new food interactions from the pandemic with the focus on delivery and drive-up food. We can go back and eat at restaurants to some extent, but I think a lot of those alternate ways of getting our food are going to remain. So what are the risks with that? Finally, the whole emergence of digital and with having more access to information about everything in our lives, food included, means we need to be thinking about that. How can digital help with traceability so that we're very well connected on where food is coming from?