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IAFP debate: Is the pizza or the box actually causing obesity?

TAMPA, FL  — There are no “snowflakes” or demands for “safe spaces” from any of the attendees of the International Association for Food Protection. Instead there is a willingness to take sides and debate any issue relating to food safety.

Take Stephen Base of Texas A&M University who was willing to step in late and argue the case that obesity in the United States is caused by the box, not the pizza. Base admitted after the Wednesday morning debate that not even he believed it, but he managed to almost triple the number of people in the audience with his arguments — to 32 percent up from 13 before the debate began.

Debating “current perspectives in food safety” has become one of the annual sessions at the IAFP meetings, giving food safety audiences an opportunity to hear opposing sides and then vote on who made the persuasive arguments. Hurt feelings aren’t a concern.

On the question of “Which is the Real Obesogen?  The Pizza or the Box?” Base started out well behind with the audience of about 300 dividing  87 percent to 13 percent on the side that pizza makes people fat, not the box.

He deployed a wicked sense of humor to raise awareness about how much packaging  is used in delivering pizza in America.

The fact that packaging would come in for as much scrutiny as the meat, cheese and veggie filled pizzas — when it comes to what’s making so man people obese — caught many of the IAFP attendees off guard. However fluorinated chemicals in packages, used for their grease-repellent characteristics, are associated by some with obesity. They are the same chemicals that are used for water-repellant, stain-resistant, and non-stick properties in consumer products like furniture, carpets, clothing, cosmetics and cookware.

To make his case, Base compared Americans to Italians and concluded that U.S. packaging is why people in the states are more obese. Taking the opposing side — and winning — was Ruth Kava of the American Council on Science and Health.

She blamed the pizza, and said packaging concerns were not proof of causation. Kava said that while metabolic and genetic issues are involved, obesity overall is about “activity and intake.” She said data shows people are eating more and being less active.

“It’s the pizza,” she proclaimed.

Ugly ducklings and old hot dogs
Another debate centered on whether we should encourage the consumption of “ugly and expired foods” as a strategy to combat food waste.

Estimates of worldwide food waste vary, but United Nations organizations are claiming more than one billion tons of food produced annually is never consumed while one in nine people remain hungry or undernourished.  And food waste represents a $940 billion per year economic loss.

Sarah Cahill of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, took the affirmative side, arguing the time is long past when we can afford to waste so much food.   She said UN figures show that as much as half the fibers, tubers, fruits and vegetables are wasted.

“We need to push industry and the technology,” she said, calling for using ugly or misformed fruits and vegetables that now go unused only because they are misshaped.

Taking the other side in the ugly debate was Robert Tauxe of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

It’s not the misshapen produce that bothers Tauxe, but bruised and spoiled products that may make products ripe for pathogens. The CDC official said food grading does not always equate with safety, but it can be confusing for consumers. He pointed to past outbreaks that included such items as “salvage” chili and over-ripe tomatoes that made people sick.

Tauxe said people have to understand that ugly is not the same as bruised or compromised. In the end the audience, which was split 70-30 against food waste before the debate, ended up being largely unmoved by the arguments presented.

Lawyer vs. lawyer
The third debate pitted food safety attorney Bill Marler of Seattle against Sarah Brew of the Minneapolis law firm Faegre Baker and Daniels over whether consumers “own a piece of food safety.”

Brew, who argued on the side of industry, began with the audience’s overwhelming support, 87 percent to 13 percent.

“Industry does not have the capacity to make sterile food,” she said. The business attorney argued that consumers are the “last defense” for food safety and must take on responsibility for following instructions, including the “clean, separate, cook and chill” instructions on food packaging.

Marler managed to move the needle a bit toward the consumers’ side, with a post-debate breakdown of 82 percent for industry and 18 percent for consumers.

He pointed out that only about 36,000 food scientists have the level of food safety knowledge of most IAFP conference attendees. He said courts exist to divide liability among all parties that might share responsibility, and in the end 12 consumers who happen to be selected to serve on a jury are the ones who decide.

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