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Trust me, I’m a food scientist

Sterling Crew, Vice President of IFST and Head of Technical at Kolak Snack Foods, explores the factors driving consumer misgivings about food science and considers strategies to address this problem.

The war on food science

Food consumed in the UK is amongst the safest, most authentic and nutritious in the world. Technological advances based on food science have enabled the cultivation and distribution of an enormous variety of nutritious safe food. Food scientists work with facts and offer evidence, yet many in the general public remain unconvinced of the benefits that food science can deliver.

There is a clash between cultural and political ideology and science, which is fueled by food scares. There has recently been high profile press coverage concerning artificial colours and flavours, pesticides, preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, acrylamide, bisphenol A and various foodborne illnesses. The genetically modified organism debate, where food scientists were portrayed in some sections of the media as modern day Doctor Frankensteins, illustrates the problem. All journalists know that food scares make popular stories. Part of the problem is that good positive food science is not as newsworthy. The sensational coverage is bringing about a climate of apprehension, where consumers believe that they are being put at risk by food science developments which carry the threat of negative, unintended and often unanticipated consequences. They often listen to conflicting expert views and are exposed to new technologies before they are fully understood.

Food is necessary to sustain health and life and therefore it is understandable that the public tends to be risk averse when it comes to food. This can lead to the perceived risk being markedly different from the fact based risk. This is further exacerbated by scientists using a complex, impenetrable nomenclature. Consumers become suspicious that they are somehow being manipulated by the scientific process. There is also a danger that the science will be hijacked by special interest groups and politicians to suit their own agendas.

All journalists know that food scares make popular stories."

Balance versus bias

Food scientists endeavour to present information in a way that helps fellow professionals and the public make informed decisions. This involves balance in weighing the evidence, which can lead to information being presented to the public even when it has been widely discounted by scientific experts. Too much weight has been given to unqualified sceptics in the pursuit of balance. The desire to ensue ‘balanced’ reporting has resulted in unqualified critics being given an undeserved prominence and unwarranted credibility, creating a climate of doubt where there is none.

This is illustrated in the safety of food additives debate. Food additives are only approved once they have passed a stringent, robust, independent safety assessment. The most important additives are preservatives, without which food would quickly deteriorate and become unsafe. Some additives are extracted from naturally occurring materials while others are synthetic, but like every other component of food, all additives, no matter what their origin, are chemicals. Many sceptics and critics have accused food scientists of medaling with natural foods by incorporating chemical additives. The very word chemical has become a tendentious one and is used pejoratively. It is important to communicate to the public where the weight of agreement on food science lies, for example health concerns about excessive consumption of salt and its relationship to high blood pressure. The scientific case has been made and the majority of scientific opinion is minded for salt reduction where reasonable and practicable. Messages based on solid scientific evidence have had to compete on an equal playing field with messages from naysayers. Communicating food science messages should not be simply a case of addressing a wide range of viewpoints, but critically depends on the varying degree of prominence with which the opinions are presented.

Clearly there are times when food scientists need to recommend a single course of action. In a case of serious cardiovascular disease, surgeons do not offer the patient the choice of open heart surgery or a vigorous course of intensive homeopathy. However, food scientists must be careful to avoid confirmation bias, where they look for and only see evidence that confirms what they already believe.

Killjoy food scientists

The Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, recently proposed new guidelines to limit the health risks associated with the consumption of alcohol. The guidelines are based on the first comprehensive review of the science on alcohol consumption for 20 years, which highlights new research on emerging health risks of even moderate drinking. The guidelines recommend only 14 units of alcohol a week, which means that England now has some of the most severe alcohol guidelines in the world. The new guidelines diverge from international expert opinion in failing for the first time to differentiate between men and women. These are low risk guidelines and were not meant to be prescriptive.

The reaction of some parts of the media to the recommendations of a scientific evidencebased consultative study was extraordinary. The press was alive with hyperbolic accusations of scientists as killjoys and spoilsports. This is becoming a predictable reaction to reasoned scientific messages and advice that has a negative impact on our lifestyles. To consumers it must sometimes appear that everything they enjoy eating or drinking is considered bad for them.

Commercial funding of research and development can sometimes contribute to a public perception that food scientists might be up for sale."

However, it is still the individual’s choice and these are not rules. Just because consumers do not like the message and how it potentially affects their every-day choices does not make the risk any less real. Food scientists need to bring the best science together to help underpin and develop first class, clear guidelines. However, guidelines should not be free from challenge or alternative interpretations of the scientific evidence. The guidelines have already come under strong criticism from the Royal Statistical Society, which commented that they do not properly reflect the statistical evidence. There is also a concern that the guidelines do not reflect the current scientific literature on abstinence being better for health and mortality than light drinking. To the consumer opinion but policy and political decisions too and that the company had tried to influence the scientific process by funding apparently independent groups. This was vigorously denied by Coca Cola, but the damage had already been done in the court of public opinion. This coverage could also have played a part in the recent introduction of a sugar tax on ‘fizzy’ drinks in the last budget.

There is nothing inherently wrong with commercial sponsorship of consumer related research. It is the lifeblood of innovation and is fundamental to delivering consumer satisfaction. The UK food and drinks industry makes a valuable contribution by funding three quarters of the country’s food research and development. This takes on greater significance against a backdrop of ongoing cuts to publically funded research. Food and drink companies have a duty to research their products, ingredients and potential risks. Failure to do so would not only be irresponsible but illegal.

The potential risk of funding influence is not restricted to commercial operations. Other sources of funding may be linked to cultural, religious, ideological or political agendas. As Winston Churchill eloquently put it ‘Scientists should be on tap not on top’. The challenge is to ensure that the work is published, subject to peer review, and is reproducible. Peer review ensures that other scientific experts in the field check research papers for validity and significance. The research should also have the full extent of financial support and sponsorship prominently disclosed to avoid accusations of vested interest. Published results should be subject to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines which require all sources of funding to be disclosed. Over 6,500 journals are already signed up to COPE. Without these controls and standards there is potential for societal loss of trust and confidence.

Gaining public trust

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) plays an important independent role in evaluating and interpreting the results of food research. The agency was set up in 2000 following a serious of crises involving BSE, Salmonella and dioxins, which had compromised public trust in our food system, its regulators and the government department responsible. The agency is a nonministerial government department free from potential political and commercial interference. It has an independent board and has set new standards for transparency for a public body. It was initially chaired by the eminent scientist Sir John Krebs and stands above party political interests. Following the ‘horsemeat scandal’ and the recommendations of the Elliott report, the FSA set up the national Food Crime Unit to fight food crime. It plays a major role in providing the public with additional confidence in the authenticity of food.

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents the UK food industry, supports a scientific, evidenced-based approach. It values close cooperation with the FSA on incident prevention, supply chains and regulatory issues to ensure consumers can have full confidence in the food they eat.

The uncertainty of risk

Uncertainty plays a part in undermining the consumer’s confidence in food science. Uncertainty is used to express confidence in results or to describe the boundaries of what is known and unknown. However, uncertainty can be used to undermine evidence. Communicating the nature of uncertainty in food science is necessary to improve public confidence and build trust and support decision making by consumers. Uncertainty is not a barrier to providing advice or taking action, but the public can interpret it as meaning that data is unreliable, unclear or untrustworthy. To the layperson it can appear that even the experts cannot be confident. While the public perceives uncertainty as a bad thing, the food scientist sees it as a mark of sound science. Food scientists must be open and honest about scientific uncertainty and welcome challenges as being a healthy and integral part of the scientific process.

Conclusion

By 2050 there will be an extra two billion mouths to feed and it is estimated that the world will need to produce 60% more food to meet this growing demand. In addition, emerging economies, such as China and India, are creating wealthier people who naturally expect richer diets. In the developed world consumers are also demanding more variety, innovation, choice and convenience, along with higher standards of safety, authenticity and improved wholesomeness all at affordable prices. Meeting these consumer expectations and global challenges can only be achieved using modern agricultural practices and food processing technologies based on the appliance of food science. Business as usual is clearly not an option and food scientists will be at the very forefront of developing the solutions to these challenges. Food scientists must get the science and the advice right to ensure they retain the trust of the public. If food scientists want to influence the public, they need to understand what drives trust and builds confidence. Consumer doubt and distrust of food science could have serious negative consequences on future progress. The security of food supply could be in danger unless some of the negative attitudes to food science can be redressed. It is vital that science is used to deliver food that everyone can trust.

Sterling Crew FIFST, FCIEH, FRSPH, is Head of Technical at Kolak Snack Foods Ltd,
Vice President of the Institute of Food Science and Technology and Chair of the
IFST Food Safety Group. Email: Sterling@Kolak.co.uk Web: www.ifst.org



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