The number of students starting at the University of Reading's School of Food Biosciences, the country's largest centre of its kind, has halved in the last 15 years from almost 60 in 1990 to around 30 in 2004.
The pool of applicants has also shrunk from more than 1,000 in 1995 to less than 300 last year. Meanwhile, the university applications monitor, UCAS, reports that recruitment onto food-based courses across the UK has more than halved since 1998.
Christine Williams, head of the Reading school, said she feared the trend would become a downward spiral, leaving the UK as merely an administrative base for food companies.
"I am concerned the UK will lose much of its edge in food development because food companies will take their research elsewhere. In fact, it is already happening," said Williams, who has been involved in food science and technology for around 40 years.
She believes some UK courses may have to close in two or three years if the situation continues. This would put Britain's food industry in a very distant place from consumers, and inevitably raise traceability fears.
"In the UK we have sophisticated consumers who want food that tastes good, has good nutritional balance, is fresh and has reliable ingredients. We are concerned that this will not be sustained if the situation [recruitment shortage] continues," said Williams.
The British government has just commissioned new research into food scientist shortages through its skills and training body, Improve. "We hope to find out what the situation is. Is there a shortage? If so, are employers meeting their requirements through other means, like bringing in people from overseas?" Said Improve researcher Alison Dodwell to DairyReporter.com.
"There is evidence from numerous universities that food science courses are dropping off. If you don't have that top level of development going on then industry development will be halted," she said.
Improve plans to consult universities, training schools and many food and drink companies across the UK before publishing its findings towards the end of September.
What is the solution?
Williams said the answer was to engage more young people on the partnership between food and science. "If you ask people what food scientists do, people have real difficulty".
She said her department held a workshop last week with 50 A-Level students to show them what the School of Food Biosciences did. The school is also talking to marketing companies about how to improve its website. "Food has a bad image in the UK," said Williams.
She said problems stretched right back to secondary education in the UK, and called the government's launch of a GCSE (end-of-school exam for pupils aged 15/16) in food technology just a re-branding of home economics.
"The subjects we need people from, such as physics, chemistry and maths, are really drying up. These are the people the industry is going to need if we are going to develop more foods with, say, more healthy attributes."
Williams said universities already have good relationships with the food industry, but that companies or industry associations should consider offering more bursary schemes and incentives to prospective students.
She believes this, together with better marketing, is the way forward. "We are turning things around. There has been an increase in applications this year," she said, adding that publicity surrounding the health aspects of food has got more young people interested.