‘Mistrust of science holding us back’, claims Europe food chief

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

EU safety chief says scientists must win over public opinion ©iStock/shironosov
EU safety chief says scientists must win over public opinion ©iStock/shironosov

Related tags: European food safety, European union, Cloning

A “mistrust” of scientific advancement is “holding back” science-based innovation in the European food sector, European health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis warned yesterday (23 February).

Speaking at an event organised by think tank Ambrosetti Club Europe, Andriukaitis said: “I firmly believe that public mistrust of science is actually holding us back in a number of key areas.”

The Commissioner stressed that Europe was home to the first successful animal cloning experiments. “Now the regenerating tissue science is not here anymore.”

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), animal cloning does not affect the safety or quality of food.

However, concerns have been raised about the health and welfare of the cloned animals and their surrogate mothers. In policy documents, the European Commission noted: “EU citizens are broadly opposed to cloning for food production.”

Food from animal clones currently requires authorisation at EU level under the Novel Food Regulation. The Commission has put forward proposals to tighten restrictions further. Under the plan, the EC has suggested a ban on the cloning of farm animals within the bloc as well as the prohibition of imports of animal clones or food derived from cloned animals.

Likewise, Andriukaitis continued, European scientists developed plant genetic modification techniques. Hostile public opinion has, however, prompted European regulators to implement strict oversight of GMOs. “Now the benefits are reaped by others.​”

'No dilution' of EU standards for trade

Speaking at a separate event, organised by European farmer and agri-cooperative group Copa-Cogeca, Andriukaitis stressed that the "high level"​ of European food safety standards would be maintained as part of the negotiation of any future free trade agreements. 

"We do not negotiate and never will the reduction of our high food safety standards during FTA negotiations," ​he said. 

European farmers from France to Ireland have been protesting the prospect of a tree trade agreement with Latin American trading bloc Mercosur, claiming that a deal could flood Europe with cheap beef that has not been produced to the same standards of safety and animal welfare. 

Speed and scrutiny intensify suspicion

Andriukaitis suggested that there are three primary factors contributing to the public’s suspicion of food science.

Firstly, he said, the rapid evolution of scientific knowledge make it hard to “grasp the changes​” let alone embrace them. “When you can’t understand the reaction is rejection​,” he argued.

The internet, social media and the rapid pace at which information spreads is also a factor. “Negative or falsely negative information is much easier to accept, because it goes well with the first point – I don't understand, therefore I reject it,​” the Lithuanian claimed.

The public is also more “aware”​ and “sophisticated”​ when it comes to questioning what they are consuming.

Andriukaitis placed these developments in the context of the “enormous” changes in the food industry seen over the last 20 years, with a state of “constant food crises” - BSE in cattle or dioxine – casting a long shadow.

While these crises prompted the overhaul of European food safety apparatus – including the establishment of the EFSA – trust has not been restored.

“Sensitivity over food safety remains high. Food scares and food safety incidents will inevitably arise from time to time and can easily damage a fragile public confidence.

“This is true even when safety is not the core issue. The horsemeat scandal of 2013 was a case of fraud – the substitution of meat such as beef in processed products with a cheaper and unlabelled alternative – horsemeat.

“And the fipronil incident of last summer was again a fraud with a negligible impact on safety, but it had a big impact on the food industry and further fuelled public mistrust.”

The shifting sands of public opinion

Changes in public opinion have resulted in the “welcome”​ development of people expecting more from the food industry – in terms of sustainability and health as well as safety, Andriukaitis said.

“In parallel consumers have become increasingly risk averse when it comes to food, tending to favour tradition over innovation,”​ he continued.

All of this contributes to an atmosphere that is stifling scientific breakthrough in food research, according to Andriukaitis.

In order to win over public opinion, the scientific community must engage in “rational debate​” and deliver “better communication of science​”.

“We must fight the erosion and the misrepresentation of science so as to keep people abreast of developments, embracing new opportunities and overcoming the fear of change.”

Related topics: Regulation & Policy

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