Zero risk does not exist

October 18, 2019

An interview with Prof Marcel Zwietering, Professor in Food Microbiology at Wageningen University. He will be discussing the controlling of risks in the domain of food safety at the upcoming EFFoST International Conference held in Rotterdam.

What is the core message of your presentation at EFFoST?   
Zero risk does not exist. In more and more domains the nuance is lost in communication and politics. In food safety, like in many domains, balanced decisions have to be made to control risks. And this is not easy to communicate and fine-tune.

What current and upcoming developments in your field are you most excited about?
The linking of genomics to the real world of food safety. There is here and there gold to be found, but first a lot of rocks have to be cracked to find the right spots. It is already marvellous how sometimes outbreaks of foodborne disease that are very diffused in both place and time can be linked.

What impact does your research/work have on societal, technical, political, and/or economic issues?  
Food safety is of large importance for public health, food industries and governments. Food spoilage is of importance for pleasure, sustainability and food security. Food safety is important for the prevention of disease. Food fermentation is important for the quality of products, sustainability and safety. So microorganisms in our foods can be seen as the good, the bad, and the ugly (the fermentative, the pathogens and the spoilers). So this domain clearly relates to the Wageningen mission to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life.  

How did you come to work in this field?
I studied Biotechnology in Wageningen and worked in the domains of microbiology, mathematics, control theory and bioprocess engineering. Through a PhD project in food process engineering, I entered the domain of food technology and cooperated with food microbiology. After a couple of years working as assistant/associate professor, I worked for Danone in France for five years, and then came back to Wageningen as a professor in Food Microbiology

What words of wisdom would you like to share with future food scientists?
The world is not black and white. We need to keep on bringing the nuance into the messages. Although we should work on long term and wise interventions in our decisions, the debate is often hijacked by catch-phrases and one-liners.


Marcel Zwietering studied Biotechnology at Wageningen University and finished cum laude his PhD project in 1993 entitled ‘Modeling of the microbial quality of food’. He continued in the Food Process Engineering group as a tenured assistant and later associate professor. His research focused on quantitative microbiology and risk assessment. In 1995 he joined the Unilever research lab in Colworth House, UK during his sabbatical leave. In 1998 he moved to the research lab of Danone in France, where he worked on starter cultures, symbiosis, metabolic flux analysis, and quantitative risk assessment. Since 2003 he is a professor in Food Microbiology at Wageningen University and his chair focusses on research subjects in the domain of food safety management, risk analysis, fermentation, detection and hygiene, eco-physiology and functional genomics.

We hope you will join us in November at EFFoST2019!

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