J.R. Hidalgo, Director of Fórum QSA: "We have led the way in this country on food safety and quality studies with a holistic perspective"
In this interview, Juan Ramón Hidalgo, an expert in law and food safety and coordinator of the UAB master's degree in Management of Food Safety and Quality, explains the origins and aims of the QSA Forum on Food Regulations which he heads, together with lecturer Manuela Hernández, and which brings together our school's students and alumni who are working in the agrofood industry. He also points to the EPSI as a pioneer in holistic, multidisciplinary education in this field in our country.
The Forum on Food Regulations of our school's Discussion Group on Food Quality and Safety (QSA-EPSI FUAB) was launched a few months ago as a go-to space for seeking technical and legal assistance in interpreting agrofood law, in matters like food fraud, food quality and safety, or the conditions in which food is produced, distributed and consumed.
The group, led by Juan Ramón Hidalgo and Manuela Hernández, brings together students and ex-students of the master's degree and graduate diplomas in food safety, and food-industry professionals – all representing the over 700 students trained in this field in our school's classrooms since the year 2000.
In this interview we spoke to one of the forum's coordinators: the expert in law and food safety Juan Ramón Hidalgo, to find out more about this group.
- What made you decide to set up this discussion group on food safety at the UAB School of Prevention and Integral Safety and Security?
The EPSI led the way in Spain in offering holistic training in food safety. In 2000-2001 we launched the first edition of the graduate diploma in Food Safety (currently on its twenty-third edition), which already included a special module on the legal aspects and regulations.
The new advances in technology and new market and consumer demands led us to develop the programme of the graduate diploma in Food Quality and Safety Law, which began in 2005-2006 and is on its fifteenth edition this year. Both diplomas today make up the master's degree in Food Quality and Safety Management – this year on its twelfth edition.
At EPSI we feel proud to have been pioneers in this country in promoting studies on food safety and quality with a vision that is broad, holistic, transversal and multidisciplinary.
Thanks to the experience built up over all these years, we have been able, alongside our students and lecturing team, to consolidate a unique approach to aspects of prevention like responsibility, food fraud, and food quality and safety, which has brought us special recognition as food legislation is applied in practice by those who today are managers, heads of specialist areas and technicians in agrofood companies, or are working as official inspectors and public administration workers.
Now, having consolidated the master's degree and the graduate diplomas as outstanding training programmes in the Spanish and Catalan food sector, we feel a need to update, consolidate and further explore the basic principles and concepts in food regulations, compliance with these, and vital aspects of legal prevention, and to suggest practical legal interpretations that fit in with today's new social, economic and environmental reality, in order to foster greater legal security, both for agrofood firms and for officials charged with supervising and enforcing our increasingly complex food legislation.
Over 700 students have trained with us, who have gone on to take up key positions in private firms or the public administration, or to work as consultants, auditors or other specialist professionals in this field.
- Why are regulations on food such an important issue today?
Foods have to comply with the law before being put on the market, which means that all food operators need to know and correctly apply the rules, and that controls need to be in place to guarantee this. The study of food quality and safety legislation is a novel technical and legal discipline, which adopts a holistic approach to all aspects of the legal regulation of production, processing, distribution and consumption of foods. Food regulations need to be correctly interpreted and applied if we are to prevent food fraud, protect consumers and ensure the food being placed on the market is safe and of a high nutritional and commercial standard.
- Why is the group so heterogeneous? What academic backgrounds can its members come from?
Our school's ex-students are specialists in managing food quality and safety and in applying and interpreting food regulations. All of them have been trained in common technical matters concerning food . They mainly have a background in veterinary science, agricultural or chemical engineering, biology, pharmacy, biotechnology, diet and nutrition, food technology, etc. A few of them come from law, journalism, tourism and catering. All our ex-students have conducted a research project that approached the area of food quality and safety from a legal standpoint, as well as a technical or scientific one. And on those topics they have been genuine specialists. The topic areas tackled over these close-on twenty years have been very interesting and ground-breaking.
At the EPSI we decided to set up a heterogeneous discussion group, with a multidisciplinary academic background, and experience in both the private and the public sectors, but with one common denominator: technical and legal training in food quality and safety and legislation and regulations on food. The Discussion Group on Food Regulations (QSA Forum) aims to consolidate a group of multidisciplinary experts on the practical application of food legislation: one that can offer technical and legal solutions to complex problems posed by the interpretation and application of food regulations.
- What kind of topics do you expect to deal with in workshops, articles and case studies? Is there an issue of particular interest at the moment in the world of food regulations?
We have taken some early steps by seeing the complicated problem areas facing a multinational food company when interpreting and applying food regulations in different markets across the world, with different legislative frameworks and difficulties in engaging with these, so that the food complies with the law. This account provided by a food regulations officer in a multinational food company has left us with many topics to explore in the world of the agrofood industry.
In these workshops we will explore highly contemporary topics that are difficult to interpret and apply, and issues in the prevention of liability in the use of additives, fraud prevention, sustainability and food waste, the cloning of food, vegan products, "artificial" laboratory-produced meat, the idea of insects as food, artificial intelligence applied to the food sector, traceability by blockchain, and more.
There are many issues that have legal implications, and this makes it difficult to make correct decisions. The difficult relationship between advertising and health, consumer protection, nutrition, etc., or the habitual use in food advertising of terms like home-made, natural, hand-made and so on, or the health properties of these and their limits... all from a strictly legal perspective, to position ourselves as specialists in food regulations and food quality and safety.
- Why did you decide to include ex-students in this forum? What can they contribute?
Our alumni are a key element of this forum, as specialists with ties to the food industry or public administration bodies in charge of controls on food or fraud prevention. They are directly involved with the day-to-day problems of applying and interpreting the rules, of product innovation, and of constantly watching out for potential hazards: plastics, for example, which need to be replaced. They are the best-qualified people to explore issues, make proposals and express well-grounded opinions, which is what we will be trying to do.
The lecturers and those who have been trained in food quality and safety at the EPSI are welcome, as they can enrich the group with their contributions as specialists. There will be a portal and direct contact with our ex-students through our school itself and through social media.
- What professional profiles can we find in the scientific committee?
The scientific committee is made up of specialists in food-industry regulations and heads of food quality and safety, who have to interpret and apply the regulations daily. Also public administration officials: mainly from the departments of health and agriculture, and persons from the university who specialise in these fields. The idea is to have a holistic perspective from which to correctly tackle the legal issues around food.