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Food Safety News

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Food Safety: When Logic Fails

Michael Sansolo was the chief honcho at the Food Marketing Institute for a long time before he left and joined forces with Kevin Coupe and MorningNewsBeat.  He writes a column for that supermarket-oriented news and opinion service called “Sansolo Speaks.”  Recently his editorial comment was entitled “When Logic Fails” and one paragraph especially should be read by everyone in the food industry trying to sell the science behind the food safety issue.

“We have to remember that in the battle between intellectual and emotional arguments, the latter wins nearly every time.  We have to remember that thinking we are right or thinking we’re doing the right thing doesn’t matter unless our customers get it and respond. Most importantly, we have to stop our internal group-think and actively seek outside voices that might be willing to tell us we are wrong.”

To all the trade associations and food businesses that insist science is on their side: “Yeah, so what?”

Having science on your side is only good as long as the public believes and, too often, they don’t believe.  They’ve seen “the science” change as new facts come to light.  They’ve seen ‘”the science” bought and sold by special interest groups.  A simple Google request can show you research by esteemed scientists that can prove both sides of almost every issue.  Further Googling usually turns up some interesting information on who paid for the research.

Just as bad meat can’t pass the sniff test, tainted research also stinks but the odor is usually well-disguised and a little harder to sniff out.

The painful fact: It’s an open secret that there are scientific hired guns waiting out there to make a buck.  Want some research to prove your point?  Go see Dr. A.  Need some research to disprove that same point?  Dr. B can help.

So I’m not shocked that most people go with their gut feeling on most issues.  It’s a scientifically invalid gut, to be sure, but for them, it is the absolute truth.  Arguing with those people who have made up their minds does absolutely no good, especially if your argument is based solely on the science.

  

An uncomfortable truth: What most people accept as “sound science” often is just “shaky science” that backs up their own preconceptions

Using science alone as a debating point turns your argument into a useless exercise in preaching to the choir.  You’ll sound great but all those “Amen, brother” comments from the crowd are coming from the previously converted.  All your friends and relatives will high five you, pat you on the back and nod in vigorous agreement.  Everybody sitting outside your party tent will just roll their eyes and mutter something about “sipping the Kool-Aid.”

A message to aggrieved associations and food processors: Follow Sansolo’s advice.  Stop the internal group-think and seek out people with opinions that conflict with yours.  Find out why they think you’re way off base and work with those arguments.  Some will be based on the science – their science, not yours – but most will be based on emotion.  Fight science with science but understand that the gut almost always wins the argument.  If you can’t speak to that part of their anatomy and understand its power, you’ll lose the debate every time.

The core of Sansolo’s editorial is this: “thinking we are right or thinking we’re doing the right thing doesn’t matter unless our customers get it and respond.”

Too often when it comes to issues of food safety, your customers don’t get it and they are responding in ways that should cause you to stop and “point with alarm.”  They might intellectually understand that only one meal in a million can make you sick, and the food industry can “point with pride” at those statistics.  They feel with their hearts, though, when little 5-year-old Anna dies an agonizing death from massive organ failure brought about by E. coli-tainted meat.

  

And as far as most people in the general public are concerned, there is no justification for that tragedy.

© Food Safety News
  • Chuck, it is true that you can find one study or even a few to support both sides of any subject. However, science isn’t made on one study. The body of literature is what tells the story. The problem isn’t a failure of logic, it’s a failure to understand the nature of science, which in turn is a failure of science education.
    And as far as little Anna goes, yes, it is undoubtedly tragedy when someone gets sick or dies. But when you are talking about millions of people, the odds of 0 people ever getting sick from food are tiny, whether the farms are small or large.
    Should we stop arguing the science and instead try to use emotion to convince people? Maybe that’s better marketing, but I think it’s just dangerous. It is far more ethical to work to get people to understand the science.

  • Thanks, Mr. Jolley. I concur.

  • Mark

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
    On one side of the coin consumers rightly expect a 100% perfect food system and have zero tolerance for failure no matter the minute statistical risk. On the other side of the coin…and paraphrasing Eric Schlosser….as adulterated food is cheaper to produce than safe food and consumers often can’t tell or know the difference, responsible businesses that do the right thing are punished in the market by competing with folks who don’t give a hoot about food safety. You can thump your chest all you want in trying to demonstrate your differentiation via food safety but as noted above “…doing the right thing doesn’t matter unless our customers get it and respond.”…so very very true

  • Thanks, Mr. Jolley. I concur.