Penny Marsh, global director of regulatory compliance at Sensient Flavors & Fragrances, had earned two master’s degrees — one in Jurisprudence in Global Food Law from Michigan State University — when she decided she needed a new challenge. So, she learned to play the violin through instructional videos on her iPad.
“I like to be challenged and like to learn, so I said, ‘Why not take up an instrument?’” she explained.
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’s 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 Sensient’s research and development teams can provide the products its customers want. Marsh uses TraceGains 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?
Marsh: The most valuable people skills are 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 several different people, within various 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’ve ever wanted it before. That’s my biggest challenge.
What are some of the qualities an excellent regulatory affairs professional possesses?
Marsh: First of all, people need a scientific background. They’re analytical thinkers who can pay attention to detail and communicate at all levels of the organization.
They must understand the overall goal in terms of a product launch, and that there’s more than one way to achieve the goal. That’s very important for regulatory — to be more than black and white. You have to work with the folks in research and development to find a solution. You have to be a problem-solver.
You also have to be an excellent researcher to find all the relevant regulations in other parts of the world. The best quality in an attractive regulatory person is not knowing everything but knowing where to get it.
What are some business lessons you’ve learned from operating internationally?
Marsh: 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 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 in regulatory affairs?
Marsh: They must have the drive to learn continually because that’s what regulatory is all about. Things change on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis, and they have to be adaptable and learn how to manage that change within the business effectively. I like a challenge, and change doesn’t scare me.
Another piece of advice I’d give to someone just starting in regulatory is to be active in trade associations. That’s important for growth.
What are the technology tools you couldn’t live without in your job?
Marsh: I think the most significant technology advances for regulatory have been the speed with which information is now available. It used to be that your sources weren’t always up to date. When I first started in regulatory, it was all mail and faxes. Now everything comes in a PDF or a spreadsheet.
The heartbeat of regulatory now is how you manage your data and get your data to make decisions. Today people are used to having instantaneous access to information, and so we need tools to help us reach that quickly.
SmartBrief originally published this interview.