In 1928 the need was identified for trained people to lead the fruit processing industry in the Cape. To this purpose Dr Izak Burger went on a world tour which included the fruit growing areas of California and Australia. In his report he recommended that an educational institution be established to train people to manage the processing of fruit for the export and local market. For various reasons in the early 1930's the report was shelved. Later efforts were thwarted by the outbreak of the war in 1939. It was only in 1946 that the idea was revived.
At the insistence of Dr Izak Burger, with the persuasion of the rector, Professor Bobby Wilcocks, with the assistance of the then Department of Agriculture, and with funding from Imperial Cold Storage and the Deciduous and Dried Fruit Boards, the idea finally came to fruition. The first students was enrolled in 1951. In 1952, the creation of the first Department of Food Science in South Africa (and in Africa) passed through the Senate and University Council and Professor RI Nel, then head of the Fruit and Fruit Technology Institute (FFTRI), was appointed as special professor in Fruit Technology.
In 1954, the Food Science Building was completed. In 1955, the first two students received BSc in Food Science degrees: Johan Burger (son of Dr Izak Burger) became the managing director of Letaba Citrus Processors in Tzaneen, a position he held for years. In 2013, at the age of 80 he has not yet considered final retirement from the Food Industry. Jan Hofmeyr had a long career at Metal Box/Nampak R&D during which he made a significant contribution to the maintenance, improvement and safety of packaged foods in South Africa for local and export markets. This legendary Food Scientist sadly passed away in 2013 and as a tribute to his legacy Nick Starke of Nampak R&D donates an annual book prize for the best 1st year Food Science student at SU.
It is interesting to note that the first department of food science in Britain was set up at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland in 1958.
In November 2010 an extensive expansion and refurbishment of the Department was undertaken, thanks to an investment of R23 million by the Department of Higher Education and Training and Stellenbosch University's Hope Project.
Professor Nel has been followed subsequently as head of the Department by Prof Chris Smit (1960 - 67), Prof JJ Doesburg, Prof Brian Koeppen (1970 - 80), Prof Gerard van Noort (1981 - 1993), Prof Trevor Britz (1995 - 2004), Prof Corli Witthuhn (2005 - 2009) and Prof Gunnar Sigge, the current Departmental Chairperson took over the reins in 2009.