With the reports in the media of a series of food safety scandals in recent years, food safety, and the issue of food additives in particular, has become the focus of public concern in China. In some media, all food additives are described as something harmful to human health, which has resulted in a panic among consumers.
At the recent “Scientists and Media: Face to Face”, a meeting organized by CAST, food safety experts explained to the participating journalists the basic knowledge of food safety and clarified some misconceptions about food safety, especially about food additives.
They pointed out that since the new Food Safety Law was enacted in June 2009, great progress has been made in China’s overall situation of food safety. However, the picture that most consumers have perceived is one of increased cases of food safety incidents. The reason for the striking contrast between the real situation and consummers’ perception is that the information about food safety that consumers have got was mostly acquired from the media, which is usually unscientific or inaccurate, and misleading.
Taking food additives for example, these experts pointed out that food additives are in fact indispensable in food processing, many of which are extremely important in ensuring the safety and quality of food, but one can see lots of wrong information about them prevailing in some social media or micro-blogs. One should know that if many of these additives are taken away from food, its quality will certainly be affected and safety of humans will also be at risk. Without these additives, many foodstuffs will spoil and go mouldy because of the harmful microbes existing in them.
Many people hope that the food they consume contains no additives, but the experts tell them it is absolutely impossible as long as they are living in the modern society. So far none of the reported food safety incidents that occurred in China was resulted from the use of legal food additives. However, food additives have become the scapegoat of many food safety scandals and even those who are engaged in the research and production of food additives sometimes feel disgraced in public. That state of affair is not normal at all. In fact, the experts said that according to Chinese law, those substances used in cases of food safety scandals, such as tripolycyanamide, Sudan I red dye and clenbuterol, are not allowed to be added to food. They are not food additives.
The experts pointed out that such misconceptions derive from the lack of scientific knowledge among the public and our failure in promptly and effectively communicating scientific knowledge to the public. The media is an important bridge linking scientists and the public. So scientists must in the first place strengthen their communication with the media and help them inform the public of scientific knowledge in scientific voice. This is vital not only to the healthy development of food industry, but also to the development of the whole society.
The experts said that it is necessary to give appropriate training to scientists on how to talk to the media. Science should be communicated in precise but simple language so that the media can easily understand. The media should also learn more about the basics of food safety. Only thus can communication between scientists and the media be possible.
Experts present at the meeting include Chen Junshi from the National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, Sun Baoguo from Beijing Technology and Business University, Luo Yunbo, vice president of the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology, Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert, Geoffrey Campbell-Platt, president of the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST), Michael Doyle from University of Georgia, Hu Xiaosong, executive deputy director of Office of Research and Development, China Agricultural University, and Joseph Jen, the former under secretary of US Department of Agriculture.