Food scare hype proves hard to swallow
Financial Times – 11-Aug-1998.
When concerns about the safety of milk and genetically modified foods hit the headlines earlier this week, they became part of a well- established tradition. From listeria to salmonella and from phthalates to pesticides, food scares have become increasingly common over the past 15 years.
But do these health scares provide good reason to undermine people's confidence in the safety of their food? Or do they reflect the media's willingness to blow food stories out of all proportion? "The media has a tendency to overblow stories," said the Food and Drink Federation. For example, it said, accounts of the research on genetically modified potatoes – which were found to damage the immune system of rats – did not always make it sufficiently clear that the potato was not designed for human consumption.
The media can both overstate and understate the importance of certain food stories, according to Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University. Nonetheless, he said the media and the public were right to be concerned about food safety issues, which largely result from unanticipated problems with the new technology introduced in agriculture, factories and kitchens over the past 50 years. "My reading of the situation is that people are more thoughtful and rational than they are given credit for. The British public is becoming fairly scandal-literate," he said.
Prof Lang's belief that the public is capable of making up its own mind about food issues is shared by the government, which is trying to overcome the public's distrust fostered by the mistakes made over BSE – "mad cow" disease – with greater openness. Food experts greeted the government's announcement of an inquiry into the safety of milk – which followed tests showing that pasteurisation is not enough to kill certain bacteria – as evidence of this more open approach.
The government's decision to give the public early warning of possible problems was welcomed by the Consumers' Association. But merely releasing the information was not enough, it said. It urged the government to press ahead with establishing its proposed Food Standards Agency, which could set out guidelines and present solutions to this sort of problem.
There is widespread agreement that the public needs help to sort out real from trivial risks. Even those who argue that many food safety concerns are exaggerated say that certain issues – such as the record level of food poisoning caused by inadequate food hygiene in the home – should be taken very seriously.
Yet there are a number of reasons why the the public may overreact to food concerns. Lynn Frewer, head of the risk perception and communication group of the Institute of Food Research, said concerns had partly been fuelled by scientific advances made it easier to detect low levels of contaminants such as pesticide residues. Medical advances, which have reduced the number of untreatable diseases, have made the risks from food seem proportionately more serious. She also noted that people felt more worried about risks that were imposed on them rather than those they chose for themselves, such as smoking. People would feel happier about eating genetically-modified foods if these were labelled so they could choose whether or not to eat them.
Does the public's obsessional interest in food scares carry a price? The Social Issues Research Centre, an Oxford-based think-tank believes it does. A constant stream of contradictory advice about health risks causes unnecessary confusion, anxiety, fear and even serious mental health problems, it said. "A diet of worry-inducing headlines based on dubious science is not beneficial to public health."
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