At the beginning of the twentieth century milk had a dubious safety record.  Many people became ill and often died from milk borne bacterial infections.  Pasteurization solved the pathogenic bacterial problems and milk became a safe healthy choice for consumers.  But if one reads the papers of the day many people claimed the pasteurization process was un-natural, would create poisons or would destroy the essence of the milk.  Some still proclaim that today.  Fortunately regulators don’t believe such quaint rhetoric.

Modern day food scare marketing began in earnest in 1989 when a particular communication company and lobby group convinced the media that a pesticide used on apples (Alar) was carcinogenic and killing our children.  The media blitz was huge and soon that pesticide was removed from the market.  But real research showed that, in fact Alar was not the toxic nightmare it was portrayed to be.  One would have to drink 13,000 litres of apple juice a day to increase the risk of cancer.  The former Surgeon General Dr. Koop stated in 1991,  “If Alar ever posed a health hazard, I would have said so…Alar-treated apples products posed no hazard to the health of children or adults.”  The following year the American Medical Association editorialized how the Alar scare had taken science out of context and the risks were blown out of proportion.  These facts did not matter as the scare story had already done the damage and lined the pockets of those responsible for it in the first place.  From fruits to vegetables to meat the food scare campaigns are prolific.

Fish has been part of our diet since the beginning of time.  We have all read or listened to the media tell us how dangerous farmed salmon is, but is it really?  Lets look at the PCB scare stories.

A press release in the summer of 2003 from a Non-governmental Organization (NGO) warned the consumer of toxic levels PCB’s in farmed salmon.  The story ran all over North America.   Next came the article in a January 2004 issue of the journal Science.  Together these stories painted farmed salmon in a less than favourable light.  But the media did a very poor job of showing the public proper context of the levels of PCB’s found.  It is well documented that PCB’s can be found everywhere on the planet.  As we get better at measuring lower and lower levels, we find PCB’s in more places.  But, and this is a big BUT.  Just because we can measure something does not mean the levels are toxic.  In the case of farmed salmon the levels found were about 3 percent of the allowable limit of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the British Food Standards Agency and the European Union.  It doesn’t matter how many zeros the authors put behind the values (by changing the units), it still was 3 percent of the world standards for PCB’s in fish.  Now the real shame is these scare stories may have put some people off eating healthy omega-3 fatty acid containing foods.  There is mounting evidence that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is very good for the heart.  Salmon, farmed or wild, are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and should be a part of a healthy diet.  PCB levels continue to drop around the world.  Definitely a good thing, but that will probably not stop groups from trying to use relatively low, non-toxic levels to advance their agendas.

Another prime example is the recent media blitz after an article was published that found acrylamide in fried foods.  Acrylamide is naturally produced when starchy foods are heated to high temperatures.  Laboratory experiments have shown that very high doses of acrylamide, when fed to rats, can cause cancer.  Well as soon as acrylamide was measured in fried foods the next food scare was on.  Another NGO in the United States immediately petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), claiming, “Acrylamide might cause cancer in humans.”  But later that same NGO had to admit the study they quoted, as support for their claim, did not find an association between acrylamide and cancer.  The International Journal of Cancer and the British Journal of Cancer both published reports that did not find any link between acrylamide and cancer.  And the context for the average person goes like this.  One would have to consume over 150 pounds of French fries every day in order to increase the risk of cancer from acrylamide.  At that level of food intake, a miniscule increase risk of cancer would be the least of ones problems.

Canada is still suffering from our first and only case of “ Mad Cow Disease”.  Since it was discovered one case was also found in the US.  Everyone is very familiar with the huge amounts of scare marketing around this issue.  Yet if one asks experts at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis you find out the risk of contracting vCJD from tainted beef is “as close to zero as you can get”.  This has not stopped the media from bringing forward “reported experts” who claim mass deaths are coming for those who eat beef.  They claim only diets of “Natural Food” are safe.  Or only vegetarian diets are safe.  And lately, because the scare tactics of massive numbers of vCJD are not showing up, they have switched to try and convince the public that Alzheimer’s diagnoses are really vCJD.

According to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, clinical studies show there is virtually zero risk.  Now critics will say ‘but that is not No risk.’ The critics also know there is no such thing as risk-free anything.  So they pump up the miniscule risks to advance their agendas.

Now the Grand Daddy of food scares involves hundreds of millions of dollars around the world.  One Non Governmental Organization alone is spending over $100 million dollars to try to scare the public into believing food biotechnology (GM Food) is dangerous.  They have made claims like ‘GM maize would cause homosexuality, impotence and mental retardation and leave behind millions of dead bodies, sick children, cancer clusters and deformities.’  These types of statements have had disastrous effect on millions of people in famine stricken areas of the world.  The United States donate about 70 percent of the worlds’ food aid but do not segregate GM crops from non-GM crops.  Therefore all food aid from the US is considered genetically modified.

Two years ago NGO’s convinced certain leaders of African countries to block the food aid coming from the US.  The African leaders were lead to believe the food aid was poison.  The leaders refused to distribute the food aid and millions of people were left starving.  Jump-ahead two years and the same NGO’s are at it again in Angola.  They have convinced the Angolan government to reject 38 million pounds of corn food-aid from the US.  Two million people are starving right now because of this.

In the Far-East rice is a staple crop for billions of people.  But rice is low in several vitamins and minerals.  According to the WHO several hundred thousand children go blind each year from lack of Vitamin A in their diet.  Scientists have been successful in engineering Beta-carotene (Vitamin A precursor) into rice.  The genes came from the daffodil and a bacterium.  The engineered rice is called “Golden Rice” because it has a yellowish colour.  Presently this rice is being crossed with local varieties of rice from different areas and analyzed for environmental considerations.

Once again critics have claimed many false things about this type of biotechnology-fortified rice.  These scare tactics have pushed back the date for free distribution of golden rice to subsistence farmers by years.  How many children will go blind unnecessarily because of this particular scare campaign?  Only time will tell.

So according to critics of food biotechnology there are too many risks from growing and consuming food biotechnology crops and many say we should all convert to “naturally” produced food to be safe.  But if one looks at what the experts say about food biotechnology versus “natural food” a completely different picture comes into focus.

The American Medical Association released a report in January of 2004.  In it they say: “Attempts to introduce GM foods have stimulated not a reasoned debate, but a potent negative campaign by people with other agendas. Opponents ignore common farming practices and well investigated facts about plants, or inaccurately present general problems as being unique to GM plants.”

The European Commission sponsored 81 research projects over 15 years covering all areas of concern and determined [food biotechnology]  “has not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding.  Indeed the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make then even safer than conventional plants and food.”

The International Council for Science (an umbrella group that represents of over 100 academic and scientific organizations from around the world) did the most comprehensive review on the safety of food biotechnology to date. In their report entitled New Genetics, Food and Agriculture: Scientific Discoveries-Social Dilemmas, they looked at five questions about food biotechnology including:

Are they safe to eat?

Will there be any effect on the environment?

They stated, ”Further there is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of food containing genetically modified ingredients.  Since GM crops were first commercially cultivated in 1995, many millions of meals have been made with GM ingredients and consumed by people in several countries, with no demonstrated adverse effects.” They go on to say, “ There are also benefits to human health coming from GM foods.”  Vitamin enriched rice; healthier corn and reduced pesticide usage are a few examples.   And with respect to the environment they say, “there is no evidence of any deleterious environmental effects having occurred from the trait/species combinations currently available.”

Critics will say ‘but what if’…or ‘you can’t prove GM food is completely safe.’  In a sense they are correct, as it is impossible to prove a negative.   It will never be possible to prove anything is ever 100 percent safe.  But since none of us can see the future, the only way we can determine the relative safety of anything is through a history of safe use.  To that end over two trillion meals worth of GM crops have been grown and eaten without a single documented case of harm to anyone.  If one compared the GM food safety record to some of the “natural foods” being offered as better alternatives it becomes very clear food biotechnology products are far safer than the alternatives so often advanced by the critics.  The FDA lists microbial contamination (a problem with using manure fertilizer) as the most dangerous hazard in food.  The second most dangerous hazard is naturally occurring toxins.  It is well known that 99.99 percent of the toxins we consume are from natural sources.

The next time a food scare hits the airwaves it may be advisable to first ask what is being ‘sold’ by those who bring forward the claims.  Remember we have one of the safest food supplies in the world and scare tactics should not be allowed to change that.  There is no doubt that food scare campaigns can influence public perception but when public policy is driven by pseudo-science, the result is bad public policy.  Bon appetite.

Robert Wager
Malaspina University College

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, March 26, 2004