Food processing: Telling the other side of the story

by Joshua Sosland
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Against a constellation of journalists, consumer groups and academics aligned against them, processed food companies must proactively and unapologetically work to bring sound, factual information to the public, said Jon Entine, senior fellow at George Mason University.

“You have to get your positions out there,” he said. “You have to get them onto the web. You have to get a discussion available so people can assess this information and find out there’s credible, sober, reasonable information.”

Mr. Entine, who spent 19 years as a news producer for network television, spoke June 26 as part of a discussion about the future of processed foods during the 2012 annual meeting and food expo of the Institute of Food Technologists in Las Vegas. The program, dealing with the worsening public perception of processed foods, was titled, “Food processing and the dinosaur: are their fates one and the same?”

The gap between public perceptions of the food industry and the reality is represented in the very existence of an I.F.T., Mr. Entine said.

Speaking to the audience, he said, “You are probably celebrating the fact that you are in a cutting edge of the food industry.” But he warned that a large proportion of the non-governmental organization (N.G.O.) community is “very anti-technology.”

“In fact, just having the words food and technology in the same sentence makes many people cringe,” he said. “You almost don’t understand that because you are very much involved in this and in many ways quite proud of what you do. But I think you need to understand how the majority of the consumer community and specifically the activists and N.G.O. community perceive these issues.”

Mr. Entine said the gap between the media perception of the food industry and the industry’s may be likened to the trend toward polarization in U.S. politics.

“We no longer have the overlap of the Republican and Democratic parties that we used to have, where there were a lot of people called moderate Republicans or Blue Dog or conservative Democrats,” he said. “There is almost no overlap in the political and ideological spectrum. We see this on consumer issues as well. On issues of consumer health, on debates over genetically modified organisms and how that applies to food technology there is no sense of middle ground. So you are going to find what happens, as in politics, in the food area, is minority views rule. You have these narrow voices, sometimes representing 5%, 10%, 15% to 20% of the population. But in the echo chamber of the media, those minority voices become much louder. Because companies essentially monitor this information and because journalists monitor this information, and then repeat it themselves, anti-science views become the template from which decisions are made, not only by consumers but by regulators who often respond not to the facts on the ground but the perceptions on the ground.”

An advocate of the “precautionary principle,” Mr. Entine said the media has contributed to a distortion of this approach to a siege mentality concept of “better safe than sorry.”

“That sounds like a great concept, but if we take it to the extreme, we have no technological innovation overall,” he said. “The concept of the precautionary principle is you have to prove that something is safe before it can be introduced. The reality out there is no proof if you set the bar as high as advocacy groups set it.”

Biotechnology ranks high on the list of areas of concern for non-governmental organizations currently, driven in part by a California initiative to require labeling of bioengineered food products.

Mr. Entine described the initiative as “misguided” but predicted it will win and “face some interesting court challenges.”

“We have the F.D.A., which is essentially opposed to the labeling initiative for all kinds of good reasons because you will, essentially, be putting the skull and crossbones on a huge percentage of processed foods,” he said.

Mr. Entine shared his own experience of coming under attack as an “industry apologist” by the media. Based on this background, he warned the food processing industry not to assume journalists understand science and especially “the issue of risk analysis, which is very, very important because a lot of the technologies that you’re involved in are disparaged as somehow increasing consumer risk, health problems, environmental problems.”

He illustrated his point with a description of what he called the “demonization of B.P.A.,” the controversy over how bisphenol A (B.P.A.) has played out in the press.

“Is B.P.A. something that we should be concerned about?” he asked. “It’s something we should monitor, but every study that I’ve seen and studies by the F.D.A., the European Food and Health Association, the German Society of Toxicology, the Japanese Food and Safety Association, every single group has come out and said that B.P.A. is safe. And even more important, if you ban B.P.A., the alternatives to it are probably going to be something like B.P.S., which is not biodegradable and has not been tested. In other words, none of the alternatives to B.P.A. are nearly as (thoroughly) tested. So we have to be careful. Risk analysis poses risk. If you replace B.P.A., what are you going to replace it with? It’s not good to be an advocacy group that just loudly gets up there and shouts ‘no, no, no’. That’s what we see in the media all the time. A lot of negativity, not a sense of cost and benefits and choices.

“How do you balance all various kinds of costs and benefits? That’s not done by the N.G.O. media complex. Most journalists reflectively embrace radical versions of ‘better safe than sorry.’ They have no sense, again, of risk analysis. If one person is injured by a product and 10 million people are not injured by it, the headline of USA Today is ‘look at the dangers that this product has caused.’”

A tendency for journalists to present issues anecdotally, thinking like consumers rather than as “science-based thinkers trying to guide consumers to make a balanced decision” contributes to misperceptions created by the media, Mr. Entine said. This effect is particularly powerful when a consumer has been hurt or appears to have been by a product.

“If you are a consumer, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re apt to respond to the most hysterical framing of an issue,” he said.

Food companies that hire scientists to offer a second side of such issues may well be wasting their time, Mr. Entine said.

“Industry science experts rarely matter to the general press,” he said.

While quick to identify industry experts as biased, the press does little to explore biases in the N.G.O. and academic communities, Mr. Entine said.

“Fairly or not, only those experts perceived as independent are taken seriously,” he said. “N.G.O. advocacy groups, scientists and university scientists are assumed, I think wrongly, to be independent even though they are often the most biased, least knowledgeable and have no business expertise. This happens all the time at the university level. Many of the university studies on health-related issues on food are done by scientists who have a historical anti-industry psychological and ideological perception toward things. They grew up in an academic environment that tends to be hostile to industry. I work with them all the time. They’re well meaning. They’re idealistic in their own way, but they are very naïve and don’t factor in the whole wide range of a variety of issues that have to be faced when they present explanations to the public. That said, they are the sources who N.G.O.’s go to get support and they are who the media goes to. So you have to court them to be aware of what they are saying and find among that group, the ones who are independent.”

Mr. Entine’s strongest guidance was against food companies passively allowing “the anti-food technology media and N.G.O.s to frame issues.”

“You have to be out in front, if the facts are on your side,” he said. “The worst P.R. advice I find is to be apologetic. Get out there, be defensive. You don’t set up categories of bad processed foods versus good processed food. Every processed food, no matter what it is, has a role in our food consumption society. And to adopt a priori a defensive position is a losing proposition. The media sniffs it out. It’s like piranhas and blood in the water. Don’t be shrill, but tell your side of the story. Don’t be discouraged that many reporters don’t get it. Fifty per cent of Americans, this is shocking, don’t believe in evolution. Twenty per cent of people still believe O.J. Simpson didn’t commit his crime. People are not going to move off their positions. They’re shrill, but a minority. You’re going to lose the echo-chamber debate in the media, but you have to get your positions out there. You have to get them onto the web. You have to get a discussion available so people can assess this information and find out there’s credible, sober, reasonable information. Facts backed by science, facts and context. And do this relentlessly.”

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