January 7: Guelph Professor a Food-Safety Force | Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics

January 7: Guelph Professor a Food-Safety Force

Posted on Monday, January 7th, 2013

Article featured in the Guelph Mercury.

Prof. Sylvain Charlebois rushes into his office, buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. It's clear he's excited to talk about the subject that interests him most: food safety. By now he is used to dealing with the media and an old pro at interviews. But this time he's caught off guard: the subject of the interview is not his research, but himself.

The associate dean of research and graduate studies in the college of management and economics at the University of Guelph has become a force in Canadian and international media on issues of food safety and food security.

He has written opinion columns for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the National Post, his research has appeared in articles in the New York Times and The Economist and he's regularly called for interviews whenever a food safety issue is in the news. But to him, it's all part of the job.

“I'm obsessed with relevancy,” said the 42-year-old. “The idea is to play a leadership role in igniting public discussion on very important issues related to food.”

Charlebois was raised in the rural community of Farnham, Que. Like other kids in the area, he worked on farms and spent summers picking strawberries and blueberries. His mother was mayor of the town for 10 years and town officials plan on naming a street after her.

He left at 17 to join the military and spent five years at Royal Military College in Kingston. Eventually he went into real estate, which paid for his master's degree at the University of Montreal and PhD at the University of Sherbrooke in marketing.

Food safety was never a concern growing up on the farm where he “drank milk straight from the cow.” He became passionate about the issue because of research he was doing as a graduate student.

“This was in the late 1990s, when food safety was not a big issue in Canada, it wasn't even on the radar,” he recalled.

Because of his background in economics, he also became interested in food traceability. But everything really started with the mad cow disease crisis in Canada.

“That was my first claim to fame,” he said, “I did a lot of media interviews, mostly in French because at that time I was living in Quebec.”

When he was hired at the University of Regina, he expanded to English media.

“Before that I had never taught in English, never done research in English,” he said.

Bruce Anderson, director of the Centre for Management Development at the University of Regina remembers Charlebois well.

“He's very passionate about what he does and very knowledgeable,” he said.

“And he has good discipline from his RMC training.

“Coming from a non-business background to a non-business area, he can bridge those two worlds,” he said.

During the listeriosis crisis in August 2008, Charlebois was called on extensively for comment. Just a few months before, he released the Food Safety Ranking, which ranked Canada's food safety system in relation to other industrial countries.

He calls the outbreak, which was linked to cold cuts from Maple Leaf Foods and killed 22 Canadians, “devastating.”

“Every day there was something that fuelled the fire,” he said.

During the period of meat recalls, he did numerous interviews and TV appearances with Global, CBC and CTV.

“They were all after me. It was very challenging to keep up with the pace, I didn't have the set-up to deal with it,” he said.

His second public initiative was the Food Price Index, first released in 2010 after joining the University of Guelph.

The index was so successful that it became an annual project and the 2013 version was just released last week predicting higher food prices in the year ahead.

His next role will be to serve on a task force conducting an independent review of the massive XL Foods meat recall for possible E. coli contamination last year.

Julia Christensen Hughes, dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph, said she was delighted when Charlebois joined the faculty.

“The college has become known for addressing issues that society as a whole cares about. He really takes it to the next step,” she said.

“As well as being a great researcher, he's also an amazing teacher and administrator.”

As part of his international marketing class, Charlebois engaged his students to develop a business plan for a Guelph-based company to expand into South America. He took the students with the best plan on a trip to Brazil with officials from the company.

“It's an interesting example of making teaching relevant to the community as well,” said Christensen Hughes.

Engaging with the public has always been important to Charlebois.

“It's important for any academic to connect with the community and the best vehicle for that is the media.

“But you have to accept you are not in control of the pen. I accepted this a long time ago,” he said.

Fellow Guelph professor Ross McKitrick is no stranger to media attention, having been interviewed by national and international outlets including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

“The challenge is to do justice to your academic material, but in a way that's publicly accessible,” he said.

“Sylvain goes to the effort to explain the technical details of his work and this has been very engaging for people.”

Charlebois fielded media requests from reporters in China, Japan, Italy and Brazil, but said it's essential to engage with people in Guelph.

“It's important to serve not only the scientific community, but also the local community. I live in Guelph. I'm part of this community.”

He also recently started tweeting, but finds the 140-character limit frustrating.

Whether it's GMOs, food labelling or the recent XL Foods crisis, he uses writing for a wider audience as a tool to develop his views.

“The way I frame my thoughts around an issue is to write a piece. Everything is connected, often you have to rethink things you think you've settled in your mind,” he said.

After a recent opinion column about the hog farming industry, he was invited to be a speaker at the Saskatchewan Pork Industry Symposium.

“They didn't like what I had to say, but that's the role of an academic — to be true to science. There is a market for people who say what people want to hear. Those are consultants.”

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