Conspiracies are fun; evidence-based science is not

March 7, 2013

Jeff Nedelman

When dealing with controversial consumer issues such as the safety of genetically modified foods (GMO) or the amounts of pesticide residues on fresh fruits and vegetables, conspiracy theories that "Big Food" is trying to kill us always trump evidence-based science.

Conspiracies are so much fun and science is so dry. Let us look at a few examples:

FALLACY: The fresh fruits and vegetables that the nutrition folks encourage us to eat until it comes out our ears contain harmful amounts of pesticides and only certified organic foods are safe to eat.

FACT: All foods are a combination of chemicals. Not very appetizing but there you have it. In fact, every green vegetable contains arsenic, a known poison. The arsenic is naturally occurring in the soil and water and the amount consumed by infants, children, or adults does not pose any significant risk to human health. Similarly, the agricultural chemicals applied by farmers to fresh fruits and vegetables do not pose any significant risk to human health, although minute residues may be detected by advanced analytical chemistry.

FALLACY: More than 20 years ago, some of the world's leading life science companies met in secret to implement a massive conspiracy to ensure the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2013 approved GMO foods without labels, doing grave harm to the American public.

FACT: I once had to brief my old boss, the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), who was liberal on these food health issues, on one of these theories. He said, "Jeff, we do a lot of stupid things around here but what you just described is the stupidest thing I ever heard. Go back and take another look at the issue." FDA's current food biotechnology policy is science-based. It was subject to extensive public-comment rule making. There is no "right to know" concept enacted in U.S. food law. Indeed, there is a growing legal view that a "GMO-free" label may violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.

FALLACY: In particular, Michael Taylor, the senior official at FDA who oversees food policy and who earlier in his career worked for Monsanto, is biased and any Agency safety or labeling decision made during his tenure is suspect.

FACT: Taylor has held staff jobs at both FDA and the Department of Agriculture. He also worked for the law firm of King and Spalding and handled legal issues for Monsanto before returning to FDA in a leadership role. What the conspiracy theorists ignore is that, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, Taylor recused himself on all Monsanto matters and was cleared of any conflicts. The fact that both activists and industry have challenged his decisions suggests he is doing a good job.

We all want government to make safety decisions based on the totality of the peer-reviewed data. However, when that science conflicts with personal lifestyle choices, the science goes out the window. It is far easier to take a black-and-white approach. But science is about understanding the shades of gray.

Jeff Nedelman has more than 30 years of experience in various industries, including a stint as a Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and chief lobbyist for the nation's largest food trade association. In all those years, Jeff has learned that the shortest distance between two political points is not a straight line.

Originally published Mar 7, 2013 10:00:44 AM.