‘Involve consumers in food science earlier’

By Michael Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Leatherhead food research, science, Food standards agency, Food science

Sue Davies told the webinar consumers need user-friendly information
Sue Davies told the webinar consumers need user-friendly information
Food and drink manufacturers should involve consumers in the development of new scientific techniques and technologies at a much earlier stage, if past mistakes are to be avoided, according to consumer watchdog Which?

Speaking at Food Manufacture’s recent webinar, ‘Food fact and fiction: separating science from myth’, Sue Davies, Which? chief policy adviser, said consumer confidence and trust had suffered in the past because topics were not communicated effectively. “Whether we are talking about genetic modification(GM), food irradiation, cloning or other technologies, it seems we tend to repeat the same mistakes,”​ she said.

Some consumers felt they were given false reassurance on safety or were not given all the facts.

Clearer communication of the direct consumer benefits at a much earlier stage would help to allay fears, Davies said. “We need to give people simple and user-friendly information they can understand. Failing to do that in a way that addresses their concerns about the long-term risks or the balance between risks and benefits can be confusing or lead to distrust.”

Win consumers’ trust

Nicole Patterson, principal consumer analyst at Leatherhead Food Research, agreed that it was essential that food scientists and technologists communicated more effectively to win consumers' trust.

“Consumers are not anti-science but it needs to be communicated in a such way that enables them to see, feel and believe in the benefits,”​ she said.

Key lessons

Key lessons can be learnt from the initial communication of GM to consumers. “It should not be made too technical for the average consumer or it will sometimes become a confusing and a scary prospect. Also, if you don't give enough information, consumers are likely to be pessimistic about the missing part of the story. They would rather hear both sides, so they can make their informed decisions,”​ said Patterson.

Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist with the Food Standards Agency, underlined the role of science in food policy-making. “Basing policies on science and evidence provides a level playing field, so consumers can be confident that decisions are grounded in the latest state of scientific understanding and not on special interest agendas,”​ he said.

Wadge added that policy-makers should underpin safety and trust without over-regulation.

Listen to the webinar presentations in full, plus the following question-and-answer session here​.

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Fine, but not sufficient

Posted by Jon Yaffe,

The problem with "early involvement" of consumers is that industry controls all initial research into the health impacts of these new technologies, and the "facts" revealed by corporate-sponsored studies may well be skewed in the direction of innocence. These can come about by deliberately withholding negative results or, more insidiously, by designing studies so poorly (typically by limiting sample size or test duration) that toxic results cannot be determined by statistical criteria and thus can be discounted.

So, what's needed here is objective research, with vetted design, completely free of conflicts of interest. Short of this industry will continue to hold all the cards.

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Consumer at the start and end

Posted by Edward Harkins,

It's one of those blindingly obvious points - once someone makes it.

The consumer is at the consumption end of the food chain. But they should be at the start of the chain.

Then, they could help to ensure that what they consume is what it is supposed to be. That way, they will know what their food is and, above all, that it is safe and healthy.

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