Weekly Comment

The business of food safety

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: science, Heart disease, Scientific method

One cannot envy the chief executive faced with a scientific study
that casts doubt over the efficacy or safety of his core product.
But avoiding a sales slump, media vilification and even charges of
fraud means squaring up to such studies immediately.

For when science and business clash, ethics must rule.

It has been strikingly clear in recent months that life in the scientific vanguard can come at a heavy price. Former Metabolife chief executive Richard Ellis now awaits sentencing following hisconviction for fraud in his safety claims for herbal extract ephedra. Vitamin E producers are reporting sales dives as great as 40 per cent on the back of consumers' safety concerns about high dosesof the supplement. And just last week, lutein makers, too, began grappling with the findings of one unexpectedly unwelcome study.

However, much of the remedy to extreme reactions may lie in the industry's own hands.

Nutrition is an industry where our understanding is still at a beginning, rooted primarily in the science of correlation known as epidemiology. Thus, people eating a Mediterranean diet appear,statistically, to live longer, therefore a Mediterranean diet may aid life expectancy.

The causal connection is the weak link in this science. If people consuming a lot of beta-carotene suffer fewer heart attacks, is it actually the beta-carotene that are delivering the heart bonus?Or something else, that is often present alongside beta-carotene or the eating of beta-carotene?

In nutrition we rarely yet have insight into the precise mechanism through which a nutrient delivers a health benefit. So our chief way forwards is by testing over and over for correlations, withdifferent populations, in different circumstances, to build a body of evidence. It is not proof. It is a set of clues all pointing in the same direction.

As a scientific foundation, this sets up a gulf between those producing and those consuming.

Those with strong scientific understanding appreciate that science is not the body of perfect knowledge that it is often viewed as by outsiders. It hypothesizes, tests, and re-hypothesizes, in anendless circling in on the fullest picture.

But such fuzzy edges and partial insight is not what the public expects from science.

This makes for a poor reception when new findings cast doubt. It is as if the non-scientist cannot believe that we did not know all the time that there was a catch. They have trusted our claims,only to find out that we didn't know ourselves what the full facts were.

To educate all consumers into a realistic perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of epidemiology is a vain hope.

But nutrition is a science industry that, unlike others, runs in a direct line straight to the consumer. Purchasing depends, by and large, on self-diagnosis.

There are no defined clinical hurdles that MUST be leapt to get regulatory approval. There is no body of scientific practitioners that stands, by force of law, between our products and theirprescription to users.

Consumers choose the nutrients they purchase. And they base their decisions on normally grossly simplified science, brought to them as commercial marketing, or by a media with an eye on word-count,accessibility and drama.

Thus context dies.

All the ifs and buts and uncertainty are ironed out in the interface from science to consumer, creating over-confidence, over-certainty, and a shock when an uncertainty is raised.

Often, the risks that might have been discovered are small: the kind of risks that in the drug industry are termed side-effects, and demand up-front explanation in a leaflet that comes with everydose.

But in nutrition there is no process that deals with the risk management issues for the consumer.

The consumer is out there making decisions that balance benefits and risks often without sight of the risks: no wonder there is a sensation when a risk floats into public view.

So, how should the industry deal with this ethical blind?

The default strategy is logical enough. The consumer does not understand the degree of uncertainty that is normal, so why bother the consumer with this? We look, we assess, and we say what we thinkis useful: that is, we grossly simplify.

But that demands everything from us ethically. It is simply not good enough - ever - to fall back on seeing only that which we want to see.

To dismiss a study that may threaten our livelihood as "scientifically flawed", and therefore not TRUE, is a serious charge. And we must take it seriously. The burden of proof rests with us.

It is just not good enough to grab more - grossly simplified - headlines claiming motive by the scientists or poor science. And it is actually immoral to resort to misquoting the originalstudy.

One producer, faced with an undoubtedly unsavoury question mark raised by an epidemiological study, recently issued a press release citing the study itself as saying that no statisticallysignificant link existed between a particular nutrient and increased risks of heart disease.

What the study's scientists had actually said was that at all levels of consumption there was no statistically significant link with heart disease, but at high levels of consumption there WAS astatistically significant link between this nutrient and increased heart disease.

This kind of misquoting is shoddy in the extreme. Moreover, by twisting words to attack the findings it leaves wide open the possibility that the findings were sound.

Yet many studies are flawed, and sometimes at great cost to the public.

One study of MMR injections to children, never fully laid to rest, has created a generation of children vulnerable to a measles epidemic that will leave death in its wake - because parents feareda "possible" risk of autism.

We cannot let flawed studies destroy our businesses, and we should not let poor science steer consumers off products that can improve their health and lives.

But if we are to see off such threats, we MUST first be absolutely sure that the science is dud, and we must then strive to communicate how and why.

This is our own hurdle. If we accept it as an ethical imperative and make sure we cross it every time, it will be we - and not a sensation-driven mass media - that distinguishes, credibly, betweenthe real red flag, and that which is to be disregarded.

Weasel words we should, meantime, leave to those who like to take on a great, big risk when they see one.

Jenny Luesby is editor-in-chief of Novis Group and was formerly an industry correspondent for the Financial Times.

If you would like to comment on the article, please contact Jenny Luesby at wraal.yhrfol@abivftebhc.pbz​.

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