Food Safety: Science and Public Opinion

Published on 6th March 2018

Almost 400 years ago, Galileo’s innovative and science based ideas on the Solar system almost got him killed. He was nearly alone against public, political and especially religious opinion, which ultimately led to him being forced to live the last few years of his life under house arrest. If his life would depend on a popular vote, he would have been sentenced to death almost unanimously.

These events took place some 400 years ago, yet some still believe in a flat Earth even today. While at least in Europe people are no longer incarcerated for their scientific opinions, they can certainly be crucified on a public shaming cross and massacred in mass media.

How come people are increasingly hostile towards innovation especially when it touches the essential – food and personal health? Or is this only a small part of society managing to manipulate the facts? What we – the believers in science – can do to reverse this trend?

These are the questions I want to pose today. But first – few thoughts based on my experience as Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.  I firmly believe that public mistrust of science is actually holding us back in a number of key areas. Let me name just a few examples. It is in Europe that successful animal cloning was first experimented, but now the regenerating tissue science is not here anymore. It is in Europe that modification of plants was discovered, later getting unlucky name – GMO. Now the benefits are reaped by others. And the list is long.

There are few reasons behind – at least I think so. First - science evolves today at a pace so high that it is not easy to grasp the changes, less to embrace them. When you can't understand – the reaction is rejection. Second - people are more aware of what they consume and their demands are much more sophisticated than 50 years ago. Third - the spread of information is instant – and negative or falsely negative information is much easier to accept, because it goes well with the first point – I don't understand, therefore I reject it.

While the changes in our food industry over the last 20 years were enormous, certain residue effect of the almost constant food crises – BSE in cattle or dioxine in animal feed - to name a few – are still having an effect to people minds too.

Food fears are contagious, casting doubt and suspicion right across the industry – tainting all sectors regardless of whether or not they are directly involved. The difficult situation at the turn of the millennium prompted the root and branch reform of the European food safety system – the framework of which continues to serve us today.

The early 2000s saw the introduction of a new comprehensive legislative framework; the "farm to fork" approach; better management of food alerts and emergencies; greater harmonisation of national control systems; and better dialogue with consumers and other stakeholders; establishment of EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). All this has led to having the strictest and the highest food safety standards in the world.

But sensitivity over food safety remains high.  Food scares and food safety incidents will inevitably arise from time to time and can easily damage a fragile public confidence.  As I have noted, a problem in one sector can easily affect confidence across a much wider field.

This is true even when safety is not the core issue.  The horsemeat scandal of 2013 was a case of fraud – the substitution of meat such as beef in processed products with a cheaper and unlabelled alternative – horsemeat. The fipronil incident of last summer (2017) was again a fraud with a negligible impact on safety, but it had a big impact on the food industry and further fuelled public mistrust.

In general terms, public attitudes and concerns about food have certainly broadened in recent times.  Citizens expect and demand not only safe but also nutritious, healthy food produced in a sustainable and ethical way. This is of course a welcome development, but in parallel consumers have become increasingly risk averse when it comes to food, tending to favour tradition over innovation.

Whilst our rich and diverse traditional European food culture is rightly cherished and must be maintained, we need to look for solutions to ensure exactly the things citizens ask – sustainable, nutritious food, healthy food. This is not possible without innovation, without  a more open attitude towards science and evidence-based decisions on new food products; on various chemical substances; and on new methods of food production.

Can we turn matters around? Can we inspire confidence in science, in scientific assessments? How can we beat the unfounded opinion or an emotional and one-sided campaign conducted via social media?

Take pesticides and herbicides for example.  Plant protection products which are safe, efficient and sustainable are an important element for the production of safe and healthy food.  They play a key role in ensuring our food supply. They reduce tillage, water consumption, eliminate pests, reduce production costs and are friendlier to climate. They are used probably too extensively. The message people receive is not that with the right herbicide you can emit less CO2, but that you use it too much.

The EU approval system for these substances is the strictest in the world. Our legislation requires applicants seeking the approval of a pesticide to prove – with an extensive amount of data – that their products are safe for humans and animals, and for the environment.

In recent years, many substances have been withdrawn from the market or had their conditions of use severely restricted. The stringent action taken on several neonicotinoids due to their adverse effects on bees is a very good example of where our regulatory system reacted quickly to new scientific evidence. Yet, people simply don't like the idea that pesticides are needed for food production. How can this be changed if it can be at all?

The recent story of glyphosate have given a push to do more on transparency and independence of the scientific studies. More information in public domain will certainly help to dissolve some misperceptions. It will hopefully clear a few hurdles in decision making process. Yet the question will remain – can we convince the society that science and innovation in food area is the right way forward?

In relation to most of these science-related issues, people tend to look for "black and white" answers where almost always a degree of "grey" – a degree of uncertainty – is almost inevitable. Such uncertainty can sow the seeds of doubt in people's minds and can be exploited by the media to sensationally highlight certain risks, or latched on to by stakeholders or pressure groups trying to force a pre-determined position (such as opposition to all pesticides).

We must collectively recognise that risk and uncertainty are part and parcel of every decision we take.  We need to engage people in a serious and rational debate.

But in this world of information overload – from old media and new – information, misinformation, opinions, prejudices, truths, half-truths and un-truths all compete for public attention. We need better communication of science so that people can be better informed about risk assessment and management decisions. We must fight the erosion and the misrepresentation of science so as to keep people abreast of developments, embracing new opportunities and overcoming the fear of change.

And this leads to me to my final point – this time in the area of public health – and one which has particular resonance for Italy. I refer to the issue of vaccination where increasing vaccine hesitancy and the activities of so-called "anti-vaxers" is leading to what I would describe as a potential public health scandal.

Vaccination against a range of serious diseases has proven to be one of the greatest public health successes in recent times. But now there is a real danger of us slipping backwards. For example: 50 deaths due to measles have been reported in the EU since the beginning of outbreaks in 2016.   A 6-year-old boy died in Italy, where close to 5000 cases have been recorded since January 2017. A woman in her twenties died this year in France. Anti-vaxers are killing people. Spread of fake news is a very dangerous and costly to society phenomena – and we have to talk about it openly.

The spread of unreliable, misleading and unscientific information is a real problem. It generates distrust in society and worst of all in the case of anti-vaccination it leads to deaths. I would certainly encourage all of you to use your influence to help curb these dangerous influences and siren voices.

By Julian King

European Union Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

This article has been read 971 times