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Transparency Key to Debunking Food Science Myths


by Jeanne Turner, Editor

LONDON—Transparency, coupled with early and open dialogue, are key to creating consumer confidence in new technologies introduced into the food market, according to a panel of experts speaking today during the “Food Fact and Fiction: Separating Science from Myth" webinar hosted in England.

Food Standards Agency (FSA) Chief Scientist Andrew Wadge, Ph.D., was joined by Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for Which? a U.K.-based consumer organization, and Leatherhead Food Research Principal Consumer Analyst Nicole Patterson to discuss problems and opportunities in the perception and reporting of controversial topics within food science, such as genetic modification (GMOs), nanotechnology and irradiation.

According to Wadge, part of the problem is this lack of transparency and scientific understanding leads to the introduction of foods with no verified properties whereas foods that have been proven safe are banned from consumer use. “We've seen this with superfoods that supposedly will save us from all sort of ills" yet whose properties are not verified, she said. While in the case of GMO foods "that have passed any number of scientific tests certain countries continue to ban their use," she continued.

Davies suggested the scientific community release information "the earlier the better."  "When new food technologies are introduced, GMOs or nanotechnologies, companies repeat the same mistake again and again. People discover new technologies after the product is already in the market and advantages have not been made clear. While research into safety aspects tends to lag behind," she said, adding frequently food science developments occurring on a global scale are often poorly understood on a local or national scale.

"Debates are global, but fail to be relevant to the UK. And the issues are presented too simplistically, failing to address public concerns about longer term risks and perceived risks versus benefits," she said.

In terms of health benefits in foods or benefits derived from advanced technologies, Davies said that independent assessments spur greater consumer trust and confidence in the results. Survey results bear up this claim with 82% of respondents to a February 2012 Which? survey agreeing with the statement that "it is important that health claims made on food are independently assessed to ensure they are accurate before they are used."

Patterson discussed a Leatherhead research study on nanotechnology, with the caveat that nanotechnology is not "the most consumer-friendly research topic." She noted consumer confidence in their local or national food supply can aid in acceptance of new technologies. For example, U.S. consumers  report they believe benefits outweigh the risks of nanotechnology, however, this is underpinned by the U.S. basis of confidence in the food industry itself, rather than a greater understanding of nanotechnology compared to their UK- or European-based counterparts.

She noted the industry can be seen sometimes as simply 'tampering' with food, rather than providing any benefit. Engage in open, active debate, she warns, and clearly present the benefits consumers can expect. Tell them what is in the product and "don't assume people are automatically going to accept them." Which method companies might use to tell their tale to the public remains in flux, however, with a disproportionate number of younger respondents to the Leatherhead survey, in the 18- to 44-year-old group, gathering their information about science and technology in food from social media compared to older respondents. The majority of all respondents, however, still gather their information from either TV documentaries or popular food programs.

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