Monday, January 17, 2022

Consumers are scientifically responsible for food safety, says former USDA official

by Mindy Brashears

As we end 2021, I keep my blog upbeat and holiday-focused as I watch the season. There is a time to have fun, a time to recognize the hard work of our industry, and then a time to get serious. As we turn the page by 2022 and I pass the one-year mark of leaving the position of Under Secretary for Food Security, I have no resolution – but I have a steadfast focus on food security and really There is a difference to minimizing human diseases. With those words I say, the research I oversee, and the people I serve. I have a year to reflect and a lot to think about and I’ll open up to these remarks as 2022 moves forward.

To start, I think it’s time to get real with some of the biggest overlooked threats we have in securing the food supply. They are not as obvious as pathogens, but they are more subtle and cannot be recognized until one takes a comprehensive look at reality. I will start with an insidious movement going on in society at the moment, which undermines science. Recently not only has the meat and poultry industry been portrayed negatively, the scientific-community has also been affected. There is a tendency, if not a concrete approach to something, that the science is not real and the data cannot be trusted. Consumers say “I’ve done my research,” which is basically a Google search (and not Google Scholar, I might add). Everyone is given a platform and the media, along with advocacy groups, are given a stronger voice, and exist as more credible than scientists by becoming louder and more provocative. The security of our food supply is at stake and control should not go to those with the loudest voice or the deepest pocketbook.

There has been a change in the public sphere that anecdotes should inspire policy and decision-making. It is important to us to protect public health by relying on science to inform concrete, data-driven policies to reduce diseases and outbreaks. Implementation of the new rules by advocacy groups or industry should not be viewed as a “win” or “loss”. There should be a spirit of working together with the common goal of preventing diseases. This doesn’t happen very often.

One of the most threatening experiences I had while at the agency happened during a meeting with consumer advocacy groups. I really wanted to focus on consumer education by spreading information through influential outlets. We built relationships with major companies, even had a public meeting in which we were building events with Disney and Amazon. We had some great ideas for making a long-term impact on food safety behavior based on raw meat/poultry product purchases – beginning with kids and moving up to adults (I don’t know what happened after that. because they were never mentioned). It was strongly opposed by some, if not all, of the consumer support groups. It was emphasized by some groups that consumers have no responsibility for food safety and that when food reaches the consumer, it should be free of pathogens. There is no science to this approach and it overlooks an important point in the supply chain where risk can be mitigated.

I want to emphasize that some groups were very interested in consumer education and took it as a strong platform, but the loud voices often stifled their voice as well. This is just one example of a threat to food security when decisions are not made based on science. It will have to be changed.

As a food-based industry led by academia, government and industry scientists, we must be our own advocates in the face of public onslaught. It is shallow, ignorant and misinformation when the statement is made that scientists only report data that favors the funding agency. There are a lot of checks and balances in the scientific process to prevent this from happening, for which I will be a strong advocate of my role at Texas Tech this year. I feel a responsibility to describe these allegations as a loss of respect for the scientific community stemming from consumers’ experiences with the pandemic, which they hold in their opinions about food safety. I believe that society has an absolute cost in preventing the development and implementation of new technologies that can cure diseases, process food, and protect consumers.

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