Food safety is one of the biggest concerns consumers have. This is born out by research that shows shoppers think about safety before they consider other issues, such as animal welfare, sustainability, or carbon footprint, when buying a product. So, while there is a consensus that safety is important, there is little consensus on what is safe and on what standards should be used to determine safety.
This is the issue that is at the root of the debate over GMO food labeling, the use of BST in milk production, and the use of glyphosate. There are those who say the USDA, EPA, and FDA safety standards are good enough on one side. But those who oppose the use of these products says these standards are not safe or safe enough. Meanwhile, more and more consumers are taking matters into their own hands and setting their own safety standards, often based on social media posts or what their friends tell them.
FDA and USDA share responsibility for monitoring levels of pesticide residues on foods. Limits (or tolerances) for residues are set at 100 to 1,000 times lower than levels at which health impacts might occur. These tolerance levels are considered safe based on average daily food intake by adults and children. These standards are based on the concept that the presence of a substance does not pose a danger, but it is the level of that substance that determines safety. Those who oppose the standards subscribe to the concept that any presence of the substance is unacceptable. Even if the substance cannot be detected in a food product (for example, milk produced with BST), opponents still claim the products are unsafe.
The prevalence and influence of social media has turned ordinary people into chemical, biological, and nutrition “experts.” A young woman who got a C in her 100 level college science class becomes an “authority” on biology and chemistry when she becomes a mother. Her Facebook posts then become credible reference material for other mothers. Consumer and organic activist groups have targeted this group with fear mongering food safety messages to advance their cause.
The companies who manufacture many of these products and who spend decades and millions of dollars on research are given very little credibility by consumers or activists. This is unfortunate because, in many cases, their research and field trials are the best, most complete, and relevant to the situation. But their data is not seen as “independent” or “credible.”
Once a product or process is approved by the governing agency, ongoing public and private testing is appropriate and desirable. As new technology allows for different kinds of testing, a review of research is good. Unfortunately, this testing has been used in an adversarial role. Groups opposed to a product fund research designed to find problems with the use of that product. Companies counter with their own research. Consumers and producers are left in the middle, not sure who to believe. Without a consensus on safety standards, the debate over food safety and agricultural production practices and processes will continue.
By Gary Truitt