CHICAGO — At the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual conference and exposition held July 16-19 in Chicago, speakers from all corners of the food industry shared information on current, pressing issues. The panel entitled “Teaching students how to investigate and discuss controversial topics in the food industry” focused on how to train people to convey information about hot-button issues without adding to the inflammatory nature of current public discourse.
The first presenter, Dawn Bohn, professor, Univ. of Illinois, discussed methods that she has used with her students to approach topics such as “natural” labeling, GMOs and trans-fat removal. Bohn organized an on-campus student book club for the purpose of providing participants a safe environment to read about and discuss hot-button topics related to the food industry. Over multiple semesters, students from different disciplines assessed books, articles and documentaries with the intent of learning how to discuss material offering several opposing viewpoints. She also invited several speakers with intentionally dissenting views to present to the group.
Ultimately, Bohn found the most success in allowing students to analyze a mixture of articles from different popular media sources and then engage in group discussions and on-line forums. The book club culminated in the students offering an informed comment to the FDA on the regulating of food products labeled as “natural.”
Next, IFT President-Elect John Coupland, Ph.D., spoke about the need for food scientists to engage in food discussions on a values level rather than solely a factual one. He claimed that food conflicts are often values conflicts, and that food scientists are often unaware of the importance of values in making decisions. This ignorance, he said, hurts individual scientists, their employers and the quality of public discourse.
The main example that Coupland used was the removal of azodicarbonamide from bread products. The compound was lambasted by “Food Babe” Vani Hari for also being found in yoga mats. Subway, which used the compound in its sandwich bread, announced within 48 hours that its use would be discontinued. He shared the difficulty of combatting this kind of argument with empirical observations, as fear and misinformation are difficult to dispel with only data.
Inspired by this, Dr. Coupland and his associate at Penn State, Rob Chiles, Ph.D., taught a course called “Arguing about Food.” The key points of the class were for students to study arguments without trying to win them and learn how to not be dismissive of other views while maintaining focus on real, current issues. Ultimately, he said, this work is difficult and sometimes painful, but important.
The third speaker, Holly Spangler, senior content director, Prairie Farmer, shared a presentation entitled “How to tell fair and balanced stories without losing your mind.” Her advice was to focus on telling compelling, true stories through a specific, personal lens shot through with hard facts about the issue. She also recommended talking to opposing sides of every argument for stories but not being compelled to present bad science in her writing, as “crazy often reveals itself.”
Finally, Donna Moening, Engage Training program lead, Center for Food Integrity, shared how her organization helps today’s food system earn back consumer trust. She presented information on how American society has grown more skeptical over the past 40 years and that most people trust personal relationships over authoritative “big” organizations. Consumers, she said, question the integrity of food companies and have a desire to know and trust individuals who are well-informed and share their values. Ms. Moening shared research showing that people are three to five times more concerned that a company or individual shares their values than they are about the facts those entities present.
During the course of the panel, presenters kept coming back to the fact that the general population is more engaged and passionate than ever when it comes to food, but is often overwhelmed by the amount of information presented to them and confused about what sources to trust. All of the panelists stressed the need to empathize with consumers, to listen attentively without just looking for “ins” to convince others with opposing viewpoints and to stress values in discussion while still holding to scientific information when engaging with these controversial issues.