Sometimes new technologies are enthusiastically taken up by both business and society, while others fail to thrive. Sometimes that failure is due to a technical deficiency, in other cases there may be safety concerns or unwanted environmental or social impacts, and others just don’t capture the public imagination.
On occasion, safety or efficacy concerns are overcome; changing circumstances mean that the rationale for the technology becomes more compelling or we all just get more familiar with it and what used to arouse strong feelings now doesn’t and the technology is gradually adopted.
The technology of Food Irradiation was developed in the 1960’s and showed great promise. But because of safety and human health concerns, questions about the unknown impact of the treatment on food and the unwanted associations between radiation and food, the technology never took off.
However, in recent years an increased focus on the need to reduce waste; the safe use of the product outside Europe and the competitiveness of the food sector has lead to a desire by some stakeholders for its use to be reconsidered. It was also identified as a ‘false positive’ in the recent European Environment Agency report Late Lessons from Early Warnings – that means that the precautionary approach taken with regard to the public health and safety of the technology has been subsequently proven to be unnecessary.
As part of our work exploring the introduction of new technologies responsibly it appeared that Food Irradiation was an interesting case study with which to consider the issues of responsible innovation and public involvement. In consultation with stakeholders in waste, food borne illness, retail and the FI industry we felt that, though it was controversial, it may provide interesting lessons and could conceivably be a technology which does have a role in current food preparation.
We proposed holding a multi-stakeholder workshop in order to better understand the issues and collectively consider if further exploration of the possible contribution Food Irradiation may make, if any, to the reduction of waste, pesticide reduction and human health.
The meeting was held in London, on Thursday 23rd May 2013 at the offices of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, who also funded the initiative.
We aimed to invite representatives from interested parties in all stakeholder groups. We were pleased that so many could attend and that so many more were keen to stay involved in the discussion.
Short report on Responsible Innovation & FI
As some of the participants had little or no knowledge of Food Irradiation (including Hilary prior to the research for the event), an outline briefing note was prepared which participants were encouraged to read prior to their attendance. The content of the paper is linked to the issues of concern which arise from the principles of Responsible Innovation. This paper was prepared by Hilary, all mistakes, misunderstandings and misquotes are hers alone. Apologies, a bibliography is not available.
The note is in four sections:
- An outline of the basics of Food Irradiation, how it works, how it may be applied and where it is used currently
- Exploration of the proposed benefits of the different types of irradiation effects which correlate to increased irradiation doses
- Exploration of the current issues of concern and the risks of irradiation in use.
- Hilary’s observations based on her research.
Speakers and their slides
Steffen Foss Hansen – Technical University of Denmark – Biography
Steffen began by exploring the story of Food Irradiation in Europe from the early 1960’s based on his contribution to the recent EEA publication Late Lessons from Early Warnings. His study found that Food Irradiation (FI) was one of the few instances of ‘false alarms’, meaning where regulatory precaution has subsequently found to be unnecessary. During the 1980s and 1990s multiple scientific committees throughout the world concluded that the technology was safe, but despite that, concerns about some aspects of safety and potential negative public perceptions continued to shape the uptake of the technology, particularly in the EC and US. It was believed that in China its use was widespread. His presentation considers the main HSE concerns and illustrates the responses of the different EU and US technical committees.
Steffen Foss Hansen slides
David Fell – Brook Lyndhurst – Biography
David then explored how public perceptions are shaped in his presentation of the FSA Public Attitudes to Emerging Technologies study undertaken by Brook Lyndhurst. He explained how it is easy to castigate the public for ignorance, but we are all ignorant in different spheres for a variety of good reasons and there is no domain of our lives in which we have enough information to make informed decisions. We naturally have to take shortcuts. These shortcuts may mean relying on information from trusted groups, particularly friends and family and those groups who are perceived as without a vested interest. Perceptions about FI were shaped by concerns about its association with nuclear power, a distrust of companies, governments and the science community and a lack of clarity about benefits.
David did not present to slides. A copy of the FSA report Public Attitudes to Emerging Technologies is available here
Andrew Parry – WRAP
WRAP is an independent organisation focused on waste recycling and prevention.
Around half of all food waste in the UK comes from households, and the majority could have been avoided. Most of this food is perishable, and £6.7 billion worth is thrown away as a result of it ‘not being used in time’. This may be due to food going past the date on the pack, or being judged to have ‘gone off’.
WRAP research has shown that after price, freshness and how long food lasts for in the home are the most important considerations for consumers. Many factors have the potential to influence this, for example where food is stored, and whether or not it is kept in its packaging. WRAP and its partners, through the Love Food Hate Waste campaign (http://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/#) provide advice and support to consumers to help ensure food is kept at its best, and not wasted.
The food industry can also help through giving consumers longer product life, and a few days extra has the potential to reduce food waste by up to 80% (see http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/milk-model-simulating-food-waste-home-0). WRAP works with the food industry, through the Courtauld Commitment, to develop solutions that help reduce food waste across the supply chain, through innovative processing, packaging, labelling, and there are many good examples of where additional life has been given. However, there is the potential to deliver greater benefits, across the supply chain and in the home, through increasing product life (without impacting on quality or safety), and WRAP is undertaking new research to help identify these opportunities. It is important to understand both the risks and benefits of specific approaches (consumer, commercial, environmental etc) and how they compare (e.g. packaging vs processing solutions)
Andrew Parry Slides
Christopher Thomas – Food Standards Agency
Chris presented the FSA Food ‘farm to fork’ Food Safety Strategy and some of the concerns about food borne illness in the UK. Over 100 people die each year from Campylobacter and Listeria and the potential annual financial burden to the UK of the two may approach £750k.
The majority of food borne illness is preventable and FI may be considered to be one of only a limited number of useful technologies in this context and the FSA would support its use as part of its overall strategy. The following foods can be irradiated in the UK – potatoes, vegetables, cereals, fruit, fish and shellfish, poultry, herbs and spices.
Chris cited a recent EFSA Scientific Opinion from April 2011 in relation to Campylobacter in broiler meat production which stated that “Clearly, irradiation is the most effective decontamination treatment, reducing the risk by virtually 100%…”
Chris Thomas’s Slides
Hilary then led the discussion with an overview of Responsible Innovation and observations on FI from her work on the paper. This was the stimulus for the discussion.
Observations on the meeting and next steps
The Food irradiation meeting went much better than I expected. Better, in that we got a really interesting and diverse group of attendees; the presentations and discussions were energetic and engaging and those who came said they found it thought provoking and well organised. Though deciding what to do next is slightly more problematic.
Instead of writing up meeting notes, I thought it might be easier for those who were not there, to write an observational piece on the event.
Evaluation of the event -and participants comments
The meeting ran to time and presenters were exceptionally good at keeping to their allotted slot, even though the subjects were complex to deliver in 10 minutes. We would like to thank them most sincerely for that.
Mike asked participants to post stickies on the wall indicating what they liked about the event and what could be improved. Below are the findings.
We were delighted with the positive feedback as many of these were just what we hoped to achieve. I am particularly pleased that the briefing materials were well received as it was a very tricky job!
In terms of what could have been improved, we were comfortable with participants having concerns about the follow up action because we wanted stakeholders to know that we genuinely had no preconceived agenda. However, though it was mentioned, we should have made that clearer in advance and at the end.
Time constraints also prevented us from going into detail about FI itself, and about MATTER and Esmee. However, in future I think it worth taking time to present both those areas more clearly. Perhaps having a half hour longer meeting, for example.
Why is MATTER Involved
It was our recent assessment of public dialogues, juxtaposed with negatives views from some stakeholders about the public’s supposedly irrational view of technology which stimulated our interest in Food Irradiation. Statements such as ‘it may save the environment, but they’re irrational about technologies like this”, or “the public are frightened of radiation and nothing will change their mind’, seemed at odds with the thoughtful, common sense views we saw time and time again in consultations on areas such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and stem cells that we have analysed to understand what may constitute ‘Responsible Innovation’.
We felt that the public was potentially being misrepresented and that if a technology had a clear and compelling value to society and to them as individuals, that they should be given a chance to positively choose or reject it rather than have others do this on their behalf; based on speculation and opinions voiced many decades ago when the technology was in its infancy.
It also resonated with our work on Responsible Research and Innovation – we felt that Food Irradiation may be a useful case study for the responsible development and use of technology – ie one which is focused on social benefit, used safely, with effective oversight, in which potential and actual social, ethical and environmental impacts had been considered and in which the public and other stakeholders had been involved in decision making processes.