What is in this article?:
- Food confusion rampant
"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."