Vytenis Andriukaitis made the comments at a STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) workshop. The STOA panel is made up of 24 Members of the European Parliament.
“How can we inspire confidence in carefully and meticulously considered scientific assessments, when many people are more likely to pay attention to an emotional and one-sided campaign conducted via social media?,” he said.
“[Despite] all our efforts to ensure rigorous high safety standards and impartiality across these various issues…controversy around a few substances risk leading to an erosion of public trust in our science-based systems.
“This can be explained partly by an exaggerated perception of personal risk, stemming from the confusion of "hazard" and "risk" in public opinion, and partly by increasing suspicion over the independence of our risk assessment system.
“This uncertainty can sow the seeds of doubt in people's minds and can be…latched onto by stakeholders or pressure groups trying to force a pre-determined position, such as against pesticides.”
Competition for attention
Andriukaitis said risk and uncertainty are part and parcel of every decision made.
“But in this world of information overload – from old media and new – information, misinformation, different opinions, prejudices, truths, half-truths and un-truths all compete for public attention.We need better communication of science so that people can be better informed about issues and risk management decisions.”
People's concerns and expectations have evolved significantly over recent decades, he added.
“The food crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s – especially the BSE and dioxin crises – triggered a collapse in consumer confidence and severely damaged the image of the entire European food industry.
“Indeed we promote our food safety system as a model for other regulators across the world – for the high levels of safety it brings and also as an enabling factor to facilitate international trade.”
Andriukaitis said sensitivity over food safety remains high.
“Food scares and food safety incidents will inevitably arise from time to time, and can easily damage a still fragile public confidence. A problem in one sector can easily affect confidence across a much wider field,” he said.
“Public attitudes and concerns about food have certainly broadened in recent times. People expect and demand not only safe but also nutritious, healthy food produced in a sustainable and ethical way.”
Ralf Hartemink, from Wageningen University, said everything we eat can make us sick, as bacteria like the same food as us.
“With a foodborne infection the bacteria or virus has to be present in the food, you get sick from the organism and in most cases diarrhoea pains last a majority of one to three days,” he said.
“With fungi you are hardly ever sick immediately but they normally cause long-lasting problems. They are potentially a very serious health risk and the most well-known is aflatoxins.”
Hartemink said nowadays the consumer gets to know about more and wants changes in their food.
“Things should be more natural, organic, less processing, bio-degradable packaging. Less salt, sugar, acid or preservative can increase the bacterial risk in the product. With biodegradable packaging fungi can eat the package so they can also live on it,” he said.
“We need more research as we don’t know how certain bacteria react in low processed food. Globalisation is a risk in food safety, where does it come from? Any complex food has ingredients from all over the world.
“Food standards are not harmonised worldwide. In the EU they are the strictest in the world, this is not the case for other countries and things may slip through import controls and cause problems.”
Hartemink also talked about emerging pathogens and bacteria not known about yet.
“Listeria was unknown until the 1980s…Cronobacter sakazakii diseases in infant nutrition, it was not known it could survive in infant formula. Salmonella growth in dried macadamia nuts, everybody said no, but they have been found there. Bacteria adapted to be in a product they are not supposed to be in, this is outside a risk assessment and causes new risk.”
In dairies preheating before pasteurization, bacteria can produce anti-stress proteins to survive pasteurization, added Hartemink.
Applying metrology in the sector
Antonio Logrieco, from the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council), Italy, said metrology is important in food safety and quality.
He gave the example of mycotoxin, saying the impact on trade is very high and the worst thing is the best quality crops are exported and the poorer quality ones are consumed domestically.
Logrieco said mycotoxins were the second highest notification by hazard category in the RASSF portal from 2012-2015.
One example is METROFOOD-RI, a European Research Infrastructure project on the 2016 ESFRI Roadmap with 35 partners from 17 countries and an international partner.
The general objective is to promote metrology in food and nutrition allowing coordination in Europe and globally.