Hard to know what to believe when it comes to chemical risks in food

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With so many reports in the news media about the dangers associated with certain food ingredients and packaging materials, the public is now understandably suspicious and distrustful of what they eat, according to a food-safety expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Americans are becoming more risk averse when it comes to their food supply, suggested Martin Bucknavage, extension food-safety specialist.

"Public-opinion polls have shown there is an increasing concern in consumers' perception of risks associated with chemical food hazards," he said. "It is difficult for the experts to explain all of the details of the technical risk assessments done on these chemicals, and so it is understandable that consumers are confused when they see various reports warning us about the risks of these chemicals in food.

Bucknavage noted that most people see stories about risky chemicals in foods reported in the news media. He contends that how these stories are written affects consumer perception of the danger presented by the chemicals. And in addition to television and print news, many people now use the Internet to find information.

"On the Web, we can find the whole gamut of information, from the scientific studies themselves to the totally unscientific opinion pieces," Bucknavage said. "It is difficult in some cases to tell fact from fiction. Some people get freaked out about what they are eating."

He cited several examples in recent headlines. "First, a well-known soup maker recently decided to stop using cans that contain a chemical called BPA in the lining. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration initially concluded that BPA was not a risk, but after public pressure, the agency decided to "re-evaluate the risk associated with BPA."

Second, a controversy is brewing about the caramel dye that gives cola soft drinks their brown color. A chemical, 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MI, is formed when the coloring is manufactured. According to the FDA, the levels found in soda are well below any concern.

"An FDA spokesman said recently that a consumer would have to consume well over 1,000 cans of soda a day to reach the doses administered in the studies that have shown links to cancer in rodents," Bucknavage said. "However, a prominent consumer watchdog group does not agree. Its leaders have petitioned the FDA to have 4-MI banned."

How do the risks associated with certain chemicals in our food stack up against nonfood related risks? For the consumer, Bucknavage believes, this question is difficult to answer.

"Risk communication is difficult when we discuss chemicals that have low toxicity and are in extremely low concentrations," he said. "To evaluate risk of these chemicals, numerous studies usually are completed," he said. "The scientists issue reports of their findings, and from these reports, numerous interpretations are made, including ones by industry associations, consumer-advocacy groups and government agencies.

"Some of these interpretations make their way to the consumer, either through the news media or websites, or through social media such as blogs and Facebook. Along the way, misinterpretation and bias can enter into the message."

The studies that are conducted to determine risk are rarely perfect, Bucknavage conceded. Animal models, where large quantities are injected into small animals such as rats, often are used for toxicity determinations. With these, there is always a question of how realistic it is when compared to humans and their normal living conditions.

"When large-scale human surveys are used to determine risk, it often is difficult to control all of the variables, including what people eat, their daily habits and their genetic makeup," he said. "In the end, we hope that conclusions that are drawn are unbiased and done in the best interest of the public."

Of course, one of the primary fears that people have is cancer. Past tragedies certainly provide an underpinning for the public's concern, Bucknavage explained.

"Asbestos and tobacco are two examples of cancer-related substances that have received a high level of media coverage and have led to people being skeptical," he said. "So when a linkage is made between a chemical in food and cancer in the news or the media, it will get attention. The question of the level of risk, however, often is more difficult to discern."

It's no wonder that people are concerned about food safety when they hear or read reports or suggestions about food being tainted -- and that won't change, Bucknavage noted. But he hopes that most will be able to keep things in perspective, if only for their own sake.

"Consumers should inform themselves as best they can by considering the validity of the information source," he said. "It is very important to understand the bias of those providing the information about food. You can't believe everything you read online, for instance.

"Remember that the information out there about food is rarely clear cut, so it is important for consumers not to overreact and seek a balance in news and information sources."

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Last Updated April 04, 2012