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Sensient Flavors & Fragrances: Never stop learning

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Penny Marsh

This post is sponsored by TraceGains.

Penny Marsh, global director of regulatory compliance at Sensient Flavors & Fragrances, recently completed her second master’s degree — a Master of Jurisprudence in Global Food Law from Michigan State University — when she decided she needed a new challenge. So, she is learning to play the violin through instructional videos she watches on her iPad.

“I like to be challenged and like to learn, so I said, ‘Why not take up an instrument?’” she explains.

That attitude serves Marsh well in her role at Sensient, which requires constant learning as she researches food-labeling regulations in countries around the globe.

Sensient, based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., supplies a range of ingredients used to make packaged food products and other goods, and Marsh is responsible for making sure those products receive the correct label that adheres to regulatory standards. Those labels can include: allergens, kosher, halal, organic, vegetarian, free from genetically modified ingredients and other key product attributes.

Marsh describes regulatory affairs as one of the “most misunderstood functions” in the world of food processing.

“Everybody thinks it’s just ‘specs and decks,’ but there is so much more than just specifications and ingredient statements,” she says.

The role involves working closely with a wide variety of people both inside and outside her organization to ensure that Sensient’s research and development teams can provide the products its customers are seeking. Marsh uses the TraceGains system to help manage the documentation involved in this process.

SmartBrief spoke with Marsh about her critical role in the global food supply chain and the skills it demands.

In an age of automation, what are the people skills you find most valuable?

The people skills that are most valuable are probably the ones that have been valuable since the beginning of time, and those are the art of communication. We have to be able to communicate, both verbally and in writing, with a number of different people, within different disciplines, inside and outside the organization, because everyone is a customer of regulatory.

In today’s environment of instant messages, people want information faster than they have ever wanted it before. That’s probably my biggest challenge.

What are some of the qualities that a good regulatory affairs professional possesses?

First of all, people need a scientific background. They are analytical thinkers, they are able to pay attention to detail, and they are able to communicate at all levels of the organization.

They must be able to understand the overall goal in terms of a product launch, and that there is more than one way to achieve the goal. That’s very important for regulatory — to be more than black and white. You have to partner with the folks in research and development to find a solution. You have to be a problem-solver.

You also have to be a good researcher to be able to find all the relevant regulations in other parts of the world. The best quality in a good regulatory person is not knowing everything, but knowing where to get it.

What are some business lessons you have learned from operating internationally?

Regulations are never the same. A good example is [genetically modified ingredient] regulations and allergen regulations. They differ from country to country, and it’s really a challenge, especially when you don’t always know the intended end use of the product. You have to be able to look at things from a global point of view.

What advice would you have for someone just starting out in regulatory affairs?

They have to be driven to constantly learn, because that’s what regulatory is all about. Things change on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis, and they have to be adaptable to change, and learn how to effectively manage that change within the business. Personally, I like a challenge and change doesn’t scare me.

Another piece of advice I would give to someone just starting out in regulatory is to be active in trade associations. That’s important for growth.

What are the technology tools you could not do without in your job?

I think the biggest technology advances for regulatory have been in the speed with which information is now available to us. It used to be that your sources were not always up to date. When I first started out in regulatory, it was all mail and faxes. Now everything comes in a pdf image or a spreadsheet.

What really is the heartbeat of regulatory now is how you manage your data and where you get your data to make decisions. Today people are used to having instantaneous access to information, and so we need tools to help us react that quickly.


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