Queen's University

From the farm to the fork

[photo of Brian Sterling]It sounds like such a simple question: Where does our food come from? But given today’s global web of production, distribution, and retail, the ­answers are not as easy as you might think.

Tracking a food product through its entire supply chain can prove to be a difficult task, especially in the midst of a disease outbreak or other emergency, but Brian Sterling, Sc’74, is trying to make it less complicated.

Brian recently helped launch the Global Food Traceability Center, a forum designed to engage key stakeholders and strengthen the global food supply, started by the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).

The Center fills a void, says Brian, because until it was created last July, there was no global go-to body to act as the authoritative voice on food tracing. “There’s no organization out there that’s looking at it all the way from the farm to the fork and encompassing the huge galaxy of foods that we eat,” he said during an interview at the IFT’s Washington, D.C., office.

The Center, still in its early stages, aims to provide practical solutions to the challenges of tracing food products and to make existing systems more transparent for consumers. It is offering advice and training, conducting research, and drawing together experts from academia, the food industry, regulatory bodies, and consumer groups.

Some companies are not eager to spend money on traceability systems and technology, but Brian tries to convince them it’s good for business. When something goes wrong, it’s in their interest to be able to react quickly, he tells them; not only might lives be at stake, but also their bottom lines.
A more coordinated global system of traceability also benefits consumers and public health. “It’s going to give us a stronger response to food emergencies and a more reliable ­response, a faster response,” says Brian.

He brings years of experience in problem-solving and food traceability to his role with IFT. He started his professional career with DuPont, worked his way up in the company in Canada and in the U.S., and eventually left to join a consulting firm. He then worked with OnTrace, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to traceability in the agriculture and food industry in Ontario, serving as its CEO. Now he works as an independent consultant and is spending a lot of time advising the IFT and travelling from his home in Oakville, ON, to its offices in Washington and Chicago.

Over the years he has made periodic trips to his old stomping grounds in Kingston, too, one of his daughters having followed in his footsteps down to Queen’s.

Brian always had his heart set on going to Queen’s. “I was totally amazed and surprised when I got accepted, and I was even more amazed and surprised when I passed,” he jokes. He has many fond memories of the house he shared with five friends on University Avenue, where Stauffer Library now stands.

Good times were also had at Clark Hall Pub, site of his “claim to fame at Queen’s.” Any current student or alumnus who has consumed a beverage there can partly thank Brian for it. He was involved in the birth of the legendary Engineering Society watering hole in 1971 and was the bar’s first general manager. “It was probably one of the highlights of my life at Queen’s,” he says. “I met wonderful people and had a lot of fun, though it was a lot of hard work.”

Brian is still working hard and is enthusiastic about improving food traceability. A lot of progress has been made, but there is a long way to go, in his opinion. You can take apart your cell phone, for example, and identify where every part came from, but the same can’t necessarily be said for your breakfast, lunch, or dinner, he explains. “I mean, that’s just absurd!”

If the new Global Food Traceability Center is successful, that will change.

Queen's Alumni Review, 2014 Issue #1Queen's Alumni Review
2014 Issue #1
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Last updated at 3:43 pm EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
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