Be afraid, be very afraid

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY – It may seem odd to read about the Ebola virus on a web site devoted to food and beverage product development, but parallels may be drawn between news coverage of the public health threat Ebola poses compared to how many media outlets cover food and beverage ingredients perceived as artificial or the use of bioengineered organisms in the production of crops.

As of Oct. 17, in a nation with a population in excess of 300 million, two people have been diagnosed as having contracted the Ebola virus. One has died.

While this information merits attention within the public health community, it in no way deserves the over-the-top, hyper-sensational coverage it has received. The irresponsibility demonstrated by many news organizations and several politicians as they try to sow fear in an effort to garner attention is disturbing.

What is even more disturbing is the apparent unwillingness of the many people charged with disseminating information via the news to understand the virus and how it is transmitted. Even worse is how fear of the unknown is being used to discredit the assertions of people who have actual experience with the virus and ensuring public health.

Two cases of the virus does not mean the nation’s public health infrastructure is on the brink of collapse.

Yet to executives in the food and beverage industry this scenario may seem all too familiar. To date, zero consumers have contracted any illness associated with bioengineered ingredients. Yet “questions” remain even as people charged with ensuring public health agree the ingredients are safe.

Sadly, it must be recognized that for many news organizations sowing fear has become a business model; it is easier to scare people than inform them. The trend is having a profound effect on food and beverage product development as companies are reformulating products to clean up a label and eliminate ingredients of concern, whether there is any such cause for concern or not.

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