Debunking misinformation about food

FEATURED SPEAKERS Food Evolution Breakfast
The general public, politicians and opinion makers all too often judge the safety and desirability of new technologies from media reports without checking the facts. Influential social media campaigns based on a strong emotional pull can also mean that making the scientific case for a particular innovation can be incredibly difficult. Technologies that could be hugely beneficial to society are therefore dismissed without rigorous examination. Prof Huub Lelieveld, President of the Global Harmonization Initiative (GHI) and Dr Veslemøy Andersen, Norwegian Ambassador of the GHI discuss how misinformation about food can have real-world implications, and what can be done about this.

Debunking misinformation about food by Prof Huub Lelieveld and Dr Veslemøy Andersen

What impact has the era of social media and ‘fake news’ had on the diffusion of facts about food?
Prof Lelieveld:
“The most significant impact is that more than a million still people die every year because of a lack of Vitamin A, and more than 300 000 children go blind. This could be prevented by using rice modified to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of Vitamin A. Some NGOs and governments are against this, without providing any evidence that this would be harmful. Carrots, for example, are full of beta-carotene. The safety (of using rice modified to produce beta-carotene) has been proven long ago, and so have the health benefits. It is easy to earn money by being against something like this. This position sells, regrettably.”

 

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What are some of the implications for consumer safety?
Prof Lelieveld:
A major implication is that consumers often choose food products that they believe are healthier because they have been told so through misinformation. For example, while pesticides for ‘normal’ food have been thoroughly tested for safety, organic pesticides have not, because they are perceived to be ‘organic’ and ‘natural’.

Where do you think policy makers have failed, and what would you like seen done at national and/or EU level?
Prof Lelieveld:
“It is not so much that they have failed. It is simply impossible for governments to work very quickly because for political reasons they often need approval from parliaments, which more often than not make decisions on political grounds rather than on scientific grounds. But maybe they could have proposed to give more authority to scientific institutions, enabling them to bypass politics in case of food safety incidents. It should also become a policy to appoint enough well-trained food safety inspectors. In most countries, the number of inspectors is not even close to the numbers required.”

More broadly, what impact has misinformation had on the development of some beneficial technologies?
Dr Andersen: “
A good example is the fact that the use of irradiation to make food safe – by killing harmful insects, parasites and bacteria – is highly restricted in most countries. Equally, achieving acceptance of genetically modified (GM) food with important new properties like insect resistance, resistance to drought or too much water, etc. ranges from very hard to impossible.”

What can the food sector do to challenge and debunk misinformation?
Dr Andersen:
“The food industry should provide correct, science-based information that explains the benefits in a language that consumers can understand. Also, retailers should not shy away from putting, for example, irradiated food in their shops. They should also explain in a clear way that irradiation does not make food radioactive, a claim that is often made by those against.”

More specifically, how can the food sector effectively respond to and address the amount unfiltered and uncontrolled misinformation that gets routinely spread via social media?
Dr Andersen: “They could start with providing correct information and standing by it, not trying to please the public with misinformation. They might also ask opinions from scientific organisations (like GHI), rather than from scientists that they have been hired to tell their story. It is also not fair to ask an individual scientist to provide answers on topics that are beyond their scientific expertise.”

Where do you see the role of collaborative initiatives like the Global Harmonization Initiative (GHI) in this?
Dr Andersen:
“The GHI has published a consensus document on food irradiation. This is a global document that stakeholders should use to tell their governments or members of parliament that there is no scientific basis to be against irradiation. The same applies to genetically modified foods, and the GHI plans to develop a similar global scientific consensus document on this issue. Later this year Elsevier (a Dutch analytics company) will publish a book that summarises the evidence that shows that irradiation and GM food are safe.”

What successes have efforts like these to debunk misinformation had, in terms of swaying public opinion or putting in place science-based policy? How hopeful are you that the tide will turn?
Dr Andersen:
“We can only try and hope for results. It will always be a battle between those who make money by selling misinformation and those who try to tell the truth. The good news is that in meetings where the topic is discussed, the audience appears to be very enthusiastic and asks for supporting material. By the end of this year, Elsevier will publish a book, edited by myself, with the title ’Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food - facts versus perception’. This book is also about debunking misinformation. Hopefully, this will help in the battles about food safety topics.”

What are your predictions for the next 3-5 years?
Prof Lelieveld:
“I think this is difficult to predict. Perhaps the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) can take the initiative in providing consumers with the correct information.”

Be sure to catch Prof Lelieveld and Dr Andersen’s presentation on ‘Debunking misinformation about food’ on 5 December at the Food Evolution Breakfast.