by Mary Ellen Kuhn
Journalist Michael Specter and panelists representing the food industry tackled the complicated question of how to go about changing the image of food science in the marketplace during a provocative Keynote Session on Sunday morning, June 12.
Specter, a New Yorker staff writer who has frequently focused on issues of science and public health, set the stage for the discussion in a presentation that underscored U.S. consumers’ mounting mistrust of science. Anti-science attitudes are dangerous, Specter said, noting that they have led to a wide-ranging—although unsubstantiated— mistrust of genetically modified foods.
“Environmental issues exist with genetically modified food,” Specter acknowledged. “There are political and philosophical issues. Here’s an issue there isn’t: There isn’t a health issue. There’s never been a single issue of a person becoming sick from eating a genetically engineered food.”
The public needs to begin to understand and accept that all scientific progress comes with attendant risks, and it’s up to organizations and individuals to evaluate that risk and make a decision about whether to accept specific scientific and technological innovations.
Unfortunately, he said, society has become increasingly risk averse. More and more, we have come to embrace “precautionary principles,” which suggest that “we should not engage in any sort of activity unless we have mapped out all possible risks.” Such an approach makes it impossible for society to advance and progress; with this attitude, there would have been “no x-rays, no antibiotics, no green revolution,” Specter said.
“There is a risk to everything we do,” Specter continued. “We need to look at the benefits and look at the downsides of everything we do.
“Technology can be misused,” Specter observed. “It will be misused. That doesn’t mean technology is bad.”
Specter cited the example of raw milk as a product that consumers may perceive to be naturally healthful and beneficial while in reality, “it’s deadly. “Raw milk has been linked to all sorts of problems. It’s worth remembering that in 1938—before pasteurization—milk caused 25% of all outbreaks of foodborne illness.”
One of the things that makes it difficult for scientists to correct misperceptions about the dangers of science and technology, said Specter, is the fact that scientists tend to rely on a logical presentation of data without recognizing the importance of addressing the beliefs and emotions that consumers associate with a technology.
To change that scenario, the food industry needs to do a better job of “storytelling,” contended panel discussion participant Martin Cole, Chief of CSIRO Food and Nutritional Sciences. “We need to need make it personal,” Cole continued. “As scientists we’re very good about talking about how we do things. We need to make personal.”
Panelist Mary Wagner, Senior Vice President, Global R&D/Quality, Starbucks Coffee Co., agreed. Starbucks, for example, has reportedly saved consumers 17 billion calories by converting from whole milk to 2% milk in its beverages—a benefit that is meaningful to consumers.
“You can’t just say, ‘look at the data,’” Specter said. “Instead,” he said, “the food industry needs to do a better job of communication—using tools that include the Internet and social media.
“One of the things we don’t teach about risk is the risk of not doing things,” said Specter. “If we don’t pasteurize milk, there is a risk that 23,000 kids will die.
“Go out and educate,” he urged the food science community. “Fight on the internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They’re not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here.”
“I don’t think we do a good enough job of being on the offensive,” said Wagner. “We have to find a venue to do that and to do that together [as an industry].”
Specter offered the last word to the Keynote Session audience—urging food scientists to get aggressive telling their side of the story. “You need to be out there on the field, battling with truth. If you don’t, people will think there is something you are hiding.”