Journalists can help debunk food misconceptions

The relationship many of us have with food is a lot like one we would have with a spouse, family member or friend. It can make us feel joy and inspire great passions – but can also evoke feelings of sadness, disappointment or guilt. We interact with it every day of our lives on many different levels and for most of us, it’s never far from our minds.

But what is behind our complex relationship with food? And what are many of our notions and ideas about food based on?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the world is rife with misconceptions about food, and journalists can play a key role in exploding those myths to make us change our attitudes towards food and global food issues.

“Food safety matters more than most of us think, “said Claudia Stein, a WHO epidemiologist, at the recent World Conference for Science Journalists in London, England. “There are many misconceptions about food and many are either under or even unreported altogether.”

Here is her list of top food myths and misconceptions:

Myth #1: Food borne illness is mostly a problem in developing countries.
Even many people in the medical community think this, says Stein, but in fact, it is also a significant problem in the developed world, with more than 76 million cases of food borne illness annually in the United States alone.

Myth #2: Food borne diseases in wealthy countries are mostly travel-related.
Food borne diseases are transmitted through eating food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, prions, chemicals or toxins. Travel is not really what causes most cases of food borne illness in developed nations. Most cases are domestically acquired, most frequently in the home.

Myth #3: Food borne illness is caused by imported foods from poor countries with lower standards of hygiene.
According to Stein, developed countries are equally guilty of spreading food borne illness, having brought BSE and salmonella enteritis to developing nations where people have no natural defenses against such invaders.

Myth #4: Food borne illness is becoming less and less frequent.
Quite the contrary, says Stein. There are always new arrivals on the scene, with 335 newly emerging infectious diseases identified in the last two decades alone.

Myth #5: Food borne illnesses are mild and of short duration.
Again, not so. These diseases can result in permanent health damage or even death. According to the WHO, over two million people die of diarrhoeal diseases worldwide every year, and pathogens like E.coli O157:H7 can cause lasting kidney damage and other health problems.

Myth #6: A vegetarian lifestyle will protect you.
This is what Stein calls the “hopeful myth”, one that is quite prevalent amongst consumers. Unfortunately, a vegetarian lifestyle will not keep you safe from food borne illness. Many food safety problems in recent years have been in vegetables, like spinach, tomatoes and carrots, but also products like peanuts and milk powder.

Myth #7: The government alone is responsible for ensuring safe food.
Everyone in the food chain has a role to play in making sure that food safety risks are minimized. There are many links along that chain where contamination could occur, says Stein, so everyone needs to accept some responsibility and do their part.

Myth #8: Food security is more important than food safety.
According to Stein, food security without food safety can cause great harm. In situations of food shortages, food safety is even more important to usual because people who are suffering from hunger are unable to properly fend off disease.

Myth #9: Our food is safe.
There is no such thing as safe food, argues Stein. There are never any guarantees, but there are steps that everyone – from farmers to consumers – can take to minimize the risks of contamination and therefore the potential for becoming ill.

Myth #10: We can never estimate the burden of food borne disease.
The WHO has launched an initiative to estimate the global costs and impacts of food borne illness. The goal is to set a benchmark against which the organization can then measure the success of its food safety programs and measures.

Learn more about the WHO and its work in food safety.

I heard Claudia Stein give this presentation at the 2009 World Conference for Science Journalists. Learn more about the congress and its speakers.

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