Food Industry Challenged To Speak Out for Science RELEASED AT THE 2011 IFT ANNUAL MEETING & FOOD EXPO

June 13, 2011

NEW ORLEANS – Journalist Michael Specter and panelists representing the food industry tackled the complicated question of how to go about changing the image of food science in the marketplace during a provocative Keynote Session at the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Expo®.

Specter, a New Yorker staff writer who has frequently focused on issues of science and public health, set the stage for the discussion in a presentation that underscored U.S. consumers' mounting mistrust of science. Anti-science attitudes are dangerous, Specter said, noting that they have led to a wide-ranging—although unsubstantiated—mistrust of genetically modified foods. "There's never been a single issue of a person becoming sick from eating a genetically engineered food," he said.

The public needs to begin to understand and accept that all scientific progress comes with associated risks, and it's up to organizations and individuals to evaluate that risk and make a decision about whether to accept specific scientific and technological innovations.

Unfortunately, he said, society has become increasingly risk averse. More and more, we have come to embrace "precautionary principles," which suggest that "we should not engage in any sort of activity unless we have mapped out all possible risks." Such an approach makes it impossible for society to advance and progress. With this attitude, there would have been "no x-rays, no antibiotics, no green revolution," Specter said.

Specter also addressed recent consumer interest in "natural" foods. He cited the example of raw milk as a product that consumers may perceive to be naturally healthful and beneficial while in reality, it's deadly. "Raw milk has been linked to all sorts of problems. It's worth remembering that in 1938—before pasteurization—milk caused 25 percent of all outbreaks of foodborne illness."

"One of the things we don't teach about risk is the risk of not doing things," said Specter. "If we don't pasteurize milk, there is a risk that 23,000 kids will die."

One of the things that make it difficult for scientists to correct misperceptions about the dangers of science and technology, said Specter, is the fact that scientists tend to rely on a logical presentation of data without recognizing the importance of addressing the beliefs and emotions that consumers associate with a technology.

"You can't just say, 'look at the data,'" Specter said. "Instead," he said, "the food industry needs to do a better job of communication—using tools that include the Internet and social media.

"Go out and educate," he urged the food science community. "Fight on the internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They're not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here."

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About IFT

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) is a nonprofit scientific society. Our individual members are professionals engaged in food science, food technology, and related professions in industry, academia, and government. IFT's mission is to advance the science of food, and our long-range vision is to ensure a safe and abundant food supply, contributing to healthier people everywhere.

For more than 70 years, the IFT has been unlocking the potential of the food science community by creating a dynamic global forum where members from more than 100 countries can share, learn, and grow. We champion the use of sound science across the food value chain through the exchange of knowledge, by providing education, and by furthering the advancement of the profession. IFT has offices in Chicago, Illinois and Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit ift.org.

© 2011 Institute of Food Technologists

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