Joseph H. Hotchkiss

The furor surrounding the application of recombinant DNA technology (genetic engineering) to food and agriculture surprises many food scientists. Many feel that a better understanding of the science by lay people would quell the controversy, and several educational efforts have been made. But is the controversy due to a lack of understanding of biotechnology per se or is it, at least in part, a general response to the application of any new technology to food and agriculture? Perhaps a look at past controversies can better guide us in the future.

Humans have always applied the best science of the time to food and health, even when the science was more supernatural than natural. In the 1860s, Pasteur discovered that microorganisms were not a result of disease and decay but rather a cause. This immensely important discovery led to a revolution in medicine and food preservation. Food could be preserved if microorganisms could be controlled. As a Frenchman who understood priorities, Pasteur applied his discovery to the heat treatment of wine but not milk. Working out the details of milk pasteurization was left to other pioneers, including Jacobi, Koplix, Rosenau, North, and Straus. After 140 years, scientists are still unsure if we have it right.

During the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, milk was responsible for a large portion of the astounding infant mortality rate, which was 20% or higher in many United States and European cities. The list of diseases associated with milk included tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, “septic sore throat,” gastroenteritis, scarlet fever, cow pox, diphtheria, and Malta fever, among others.

It is not suprising that scientists applied Pasteur’s discoveries to raw milk. By 1901, equipment was available for home and commercial pasteurization of milk, and an understanding of thermal destruction of microorganisms was taking shape. Despite the life-and-death importance of safer milk, pasteurization was slow to be adopted and widely and openly opposed. Opponents argued that milk pasteurization was deceptive, not needed if milk was properly handled, and simply a way to mask low quality, conceal dirt and filth, remove incentive to produce clean milk, and legalize ineffective dairy practices. Many worried that pasteurization would disrupt the economic status quo and put the small farmer and processor out of business. Only large companies would benefit. Others believed that drinking raw milk was a “right.” They believed that pasteurization adversely affected nutrients and would “take the life out of milk.”

Perhaps the most vehement opposition came from a fear that pasteurization would diminish the health benefits of milk for infants, destroy its anti-scurvy properties, and even promote disease. Tuberculosis killed at least 160,000 U.S residents each year and appeared related in part to milk consumption. But opponents argued that there was little connection and that bovine tuberculosis could be protective for humans.

Other objections were less scientific but just as fervent. Some said that pasteurization interfered with nature and gave a false sense of security because bacteria grew rapidly in pasteurized milk.

This opposition sounds quite familiar 100 years later. In his 1912 book, The Milk Question, M.J. Rosenau offered advice on how scientists should deal with controversy. He counseled patience, education, and cooperation, and to let “facts speak for themselves.” While not using modern vernacular, he suggested that the issue be framed in terms of relative risk. In his 1947 book, Pasteurization, H. Hill addressed strategies to deal with the opposition. He argued that scientists should become active in the public debate and that they should acknowledge imperfections and shortcomings.

Thus, opposition to new food technologies is not a new phenomenon associated with rDNA technology. Other contemporary examples include food additives, colors, pesticides, irradiation, and packaging. Controversy and opposition are likely to develop in response to implementation (not discovery) of any new technology used in food and agriculture. Anticipation and planning should accompany development and precede implementation and be proactive, not reactive. When controversy is not anticipated and planned for, scientists are forced into reacting to the debate as framed by others rather than framing the debate.

While it is essential that food scientists be educated about new technologies, we cannot dismiss the importance of the broader audience. Professional societies, including IFT, with interests in food, agricultural, environmental, and health issues have produced excellent and rational overviews of the issues. These publications are especially useful for educating groups with direct interests in the technology and with sufficient background to grasp the science.

Unfortunately, these efforts can be “preaching to the choir” because they target the involved and willing and miss the lay audience. This latter audience may have little interest in technology (although many educational efforts consist almost entirely of technical explanations) and more interest in the broader issues such as Who benefits? Who is at risk? What will it cost? Who oversees the technology? and What are the health and environmental risks?

If rational groups (such as the press and consumer groups) who may oppose a technology were brought into the development process rather than during implementation when controversy is more likely, application of the technology might take a less arduous route. Strategies for engaging influential lay interests early in the development stages might allow for an easier transition from basic discovery to beneficial implementation.

by Joseph H. Hotchkiss, a Professional Member of IFT, is Professor, Dept. of Food Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.