A tribute to Rob Lake’s career in food safety science

23 February 2023

Rob Lake, ESR, has officially retired.

Rob Lake, our principal conduit to NZFSSRC partner ESR, and supportive colleague since day one, has officially retired.  However, it is most unlikely that we’ve seen the last of him as his knowledge and experience will continue to be in high demand, and he has made many friends among the food safety science network.  Meanwhile, he continues to chair the WHO project to update the previous estimates of the global burden of foodborne disease.

Rob’s career has enabled an overview of food safety science and research developments over nearly 35 years, and the succession of government entities involved in regulation, funding and research, culminating in NZ Food Safety and the NZ Food Safety Science & Research Centre.  Rob is a veteran of the old DSIR, joining in 1988.  When the DSIR was broken up into CRIs in 1992, as a member of the Food Section of Chemistry Division Rob naturally went to the new ESR.  The establishment of the NZ Food Safety Authority in 2002 brought a shift in ESR’s food safety work, becoming directed by risk assessment thinking and the risk management framework.

Throughout this organisational morphology, he has managed to remain in Christchurch, where he grew up and gained his PhD.  This was followed by a post-doc spell at the University of Illinois, furthering his study of metabolites in seaweed and sponges that might provide new pharmaceuticals.  

Initially a chemist, Rob’s horizons expanded into microbiology when ESR acquired the public health laboratories.  In the early 1990s Rob compiled a report for WHO on the then new antibody-based rapid test kits to detect bacteria and chemical contaminants in food.

Later in the 1990s and early 2000s GM food was the big issue, and Rob was involved in developing approaches to risk assessment for these new products, and establishing DNA based detection methods.  ESR’s lab in Christchurch was the first in Australasia to be accredited for these tests.

Occasionally Rob has had opportunities to contribute to public health responses – the Havelock North campylobacteriosis outbreak (water- not foodborne, of course) and ESR’s support for the COVID-19 pandemic response.  In these situations, “you just drop everything,” says Rob, which is exciting for the scientists despite the dreadful illnesses involved.  For the NZFSSRC Rob and Jo Kingsbury produced a succession of review reports to help government and industry – and our export destinations – be assured that the SARS CoV2 virus was not foodborne.

As a senior manager at ESR, Rob has for the last eight years managed a large group of scientists involved in not just food safety science, but also water quality, drugs in waste water analysis, hazardous substances risk assessment, water and sanitation in the Pacific, and social systems science.

Outside of science, Rob’s deep and abiding interest in Bob Dylan is well known. Looking forward to more listening and reading time, this Dylan quote may apply:

A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” 

All the best, Rob, and thank you.