Posted in Food Safety, Food Security, Food Systems on Feb 06, 2019

Science can be confusing

One of the more confusing aspects of working in the food world is the lack of scientific uniformity that you find. Specifically, regarding what is safe to consume and what is not.

A recent article in the New York Times asked What foods are banned in Europe but allowed in the US? The authors reviewed specific food ingredients and found that the EU prohibits or ‘severely restricts’ several food additives that have been linked to cancer; but found that these ingredients were still common in many American made products, including bread, cookies and soft drinks. Food processing in both the EU and the US are subject to considerable scrutiny, and ingredients considered for human consumption must pass the rigor of their respective scientific community, so it is fair to say that the ‘available science’ has deemed an additive safe or not. Which does raise the question – what priorities are given to scientific enquiry, what resources are provided, and how much influence does the production community or political / cultural scene have – that is, what makes science ‘available’?

Scientific ambiguity leads to consumer confusion

While the science community can have a disagreement on whether or not something is harmful to human health, and present various arguments supporting their respective positions (as academia and science tend to do), this does not translate to being particularly useful for consumers, most of whom do not have PhD’s in toxicology. Let’s unpack this a little. Science is never 100% certain, almost any position can be argued (except perhaps Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that nothing is certain except death and taxes) and the science community tend to talk about things in terms of the odds of something happening or the likelihood that x happened because of y. Relations between two variables are described with confidence intervals or probability ratios, and not with absolute certainty. There are good reasons for this, for example, there are many variables that are outside of the control of an experiment, different methods could have been employed, or different controls were used.

Scientific disagreement is often a good thing

When different results are found, there is reason for robust discussion about which is the better method, what could be improved, and what else needs to be studied. Scientific disagreement is, therefore, a good thing; as it often leads to more robust investigation and it advances science and knowledge. Conversely, however, it is confusing for those of us not used to reading p-values, or when regulators around the world base policy on different levels of results. This manifests through consumer confusion: why can you eat a food product in the US which contains a colouring with no added consumer warning, yet, the same additive in the EU requires a disclaimer on the packaging? It should be noted that there is universal acceptance on allergens and on the labelling of these.

Trade issues don’t help

Where this science business becomes even more confusing is when it is used as a rationale in trade negotiations. Non-tariff trade barriers are usually protectionist measures to restrict the importation of goods. From time to time, the ‘science’ of one country has been applied against the ‘science’ of another country. An interesting and evolving example of this is case of ‘chlorinated chicken’ from the US to the UK. While no-one can possibly understand the current political context in either country, European authorities had deemed that the practice of washing slaughtered chickens in chlorine solutions may not be sufficient to address hygiene requirements in heavily soiled birds. It appears that the ruling is less to do with the use of a chlorine solution and more to do with the false sense of security that the practice provides. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, the US has suggested that future trade deals may hinge on the UK abandoning previous EU rulings around food safety issues such as the chlorine washed chicken.

As one commentator noted – the practice of raising chickens in the US is often based on how many animals can be contained within as smaller space as possible; animals are more likely to be susceptible to disease and to mitigate this,“washing the chickens in a strong chlorine solution (20-50 parts per million of chlorine) provides a brash, cost-effective method of killing any microorganisms on the surface of the bird, particularly bacteria such as species of Salmonella and Campylobacter.”

The underlying concern is that ‘chlorinated chickens’ hide poor hygiene practices and do not necessarily produce a ‘safe’ product. Microbiologists in the UK found the chlorine washing procedure did not kill all potential bacilli. Additionally, the procedure meant that it was not possible to culture the bacilli in the laboratory resulting in the false impression that the chlorine process was safe.

In essence, the chlorine chicken issue can be distilled down to this: animal welfare practices in one country, that are unacceptable to another, are mitigated by a procedure (chlorine washing) that may or may not be effective in reducing the presence of bacilli on the bird. A study in the UK found that 72% of consumers were opposed to the introduction of chlorine washed birds but the voice of the consumer may not necessarily be heard in a country, post-Brexit, that is dependent on both trade deals, and may have some significant food security issues.

Where do consumers fit in all of this?

The chlorine washing example is an interesting one as it brings to light that while consumers may voice a particular perspective or desire, and while consumers do have the option to ‘vote with their dollar’ (or pound in this case), they do have to purchase food; and, if, as many predict, there are food security issues in the UK post Brexit, their choices become considerably more limited.

As an aside, food security refers to the ability to access food – that is, the food is available and you have the means to access it (i.e. can purchase it).

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