Editor’s Letter: March 2014
By Laura Aiken
The general public is proving a cynical lot that doesn’t trust what’s put on their plate from Big Food.
The general public is proving a cynical lot that doesn’t trust what’s put on their plate from Big Food. It’s not surprising there is mistrust. The commercial food industries, and particular ingredients such as wheat, have been crucified in popular culture. But why has it been so easy for consumers to trust nutritional arguments made in books by doctors, authors who by standard training really have very little nutritional background?
For one thing, they do not perceive the author to be having backroom handshakes with industry. That alone may be enough to cause a failure in critical reading. At the Baking Association of Canada’s (BAC) recent myth-busting seminar, an audience member commented on the fact that two large commercial bakeries were funding the Healthy Grains Institute; this would cause cynicism and why shouldn’t it? In the U.K., experts who advise the government on sugar intake came under fire recently after it was revealed they received research funding that included money from large confectionary companies. There are many systems around research that invite criticism – from competitive peer-review processes to activist organizations leading the agenda – but none seems to offend as much as the thought that a researcher and its subject may somehow be in cahoots.
If only all the funds could come from sources with no conflict of interest in the results. In 2004, industry represented a 27 per cent share in health research expenditures by source of funding in Canada (Statistics Canada). Private funding seems a significant and essential source of financial support.
I hope a scientist would not fudge results for a conclusion that favours a financial backer. Scientists are bound by a professional code of integrity and have reputations to consider. There will always be rogue members of the profession. No industry escapes its bad apples, and there are also peer review and academic institution ethics to be accountable to. But sometimes industries need to help get research underway. A lot of people have a stake in finding out the truth about wheat, and as Paul Hetherington, president and CEO of the BAC, said in his closing remarks on the topic of industry partnering with the Healthy Grains Institute: “If we don’t do it, who will?”
To which, it would be easy to respond that the scientists have been bought, so how can any research be accepted as well founded? Industry funded research should be scrutinized but not disregarded as without merit. Publication in a peer-reviewed journal is a big confidence booster. So is transparency. If where the money is coming from is out in the open, then it is certainly easier to place trust than if sources of funding are later exposed. Perhaps even more beneficial would be more public education on the scientific research process. In the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases, Dr. R. Saginur wrote of the public cynicism in medicine, “The border between the medical lobby and the pharmaceutical lobby is obscure to the public, and there is neither knowledge of, nor interest in, ethical guidelines of professional and industry associations…We live increasingly in a participatory democracy. The cynicism of which I spoke is directed against closed door dealings, of what are perceived to be self-serving groups in positions of power.”
If it is true that the public has no interest in the ethical guidelines, then education will need to reach the public in a way that resonates. In the food industry, farmers have been looked to as the next heroes to capture the public imagination. The farmer is the next rock star, I once heard celebrity chef Michael Smith say. Perhaps it is the scientist who should be the next rock star. Perhaps it is the scientist whose motivations and credibility need to be better communicated. Popularizing science is a perennial challenge, but we all have a stake in gaining a better understanding.