Why can't scientists communicate science?

March 6, 2006
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The food supply in the United States is one of the most diverse and safe in the world. A stroll through a grocery store almost anywhere in the country reveals a variety of choices unknown anywhere else around the globe. So, one wonders, how can an industry that can produce such bounty have a problem when it comes to communicating safety and efficiency? We don't educate; we react to situations. And when we react to a situation, the explanations always seem like excuses, even if they are sensible, technically sound and absolutely true.

This was underscored when I participated in the 25th Annual Rapid Methods Workshop hosted by Dr. P.C. Vasavada at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. As speaker after speaker talked about issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and food security, it dawned on me that people were talking about issues diametrically opposed to their media coverage. For example, the media coverage of the BSE story gives the impression that consumers are in imminent danger of eating meat from "mad cows" and are, therefore, prime candidates for Cruetzfield Jacobs Disease. But, upon listening to Dr. Will Huether from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the potential risk is negligible at best. There have been 500,000 cows of all kinds, ages and conditions tested in this country, and they've found only one positive animal. And this one animal never got into the food supply. In fact, since brain tissue, spinal cord and other nervous system tissue that can potentially promote the development of BSE are removed during slaughter, the chances of passing infected tissue is even more remote. For all the media attention surrounding mad cow disease, there have been only 170 documented cases of Cruetzfield Jacobs Disease worldwide in the past twelve years; most of which were in the United Kingdom and all linked in one way or another to that nation.

Dr. Frank Busta, director of The University of Minnesota Homeland Security National Center for Food Protection and Defense, spoke about ensuring the safety and security of the food supply. His comments on the progress that his group and others operating under the aegis of Department of Homeland Security also contradict what has been reported in the popular press. For example, the media has reported that the United States is woefully unprepared to deal with a pandemic of avian origin. It was quite refreshing to hear Dr. Busta explain how the Texas A&M University Homeland Security National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense has been working on this and other issues for almost three years. It appears that we, as a nation and as an industry, have taken significant steps towards addressing this issue.

Richard F. Stier

Ah, but we know that some media outlets don't want to talk about good things or those that are not sensational. If the media is not willing to do so, it should logically fall to the industry. Food processors, trade associations, academia and government need to publicize all that has and is being done to ensure that our foods are safe and wholesome. There is nothing wrong with "blowing your own horn." Our food supply is potentially the healthiest in the whole world. We should tell people how we do it. Let's figure out a way to get around the fears posed by liability and a litigious society, and explain process control, how we remove food hazards and protect the quality and safety of our food. Take the science and technology and distill it into language that John or Jane Doe can understand.

We must, of course, maintain our vigilance so we can raise the bar for the safety and security of the world's food supply ever higher. But as we attend seminars and conferences to promote the latest security and safety advances to ourselves, we should be cognizant of how to explain these achievements to the public. We can't just talk to scientists. We need to talk to the people.

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