Novel food processing technologies have the potential to make a real difference to the incidence of foodborne disease across the world. At present some foods present a risk of infection no matter how carefully they are produced, packaged and distributed. The problem is exemplified by raw poultry meat, about two thirds of which is typically found to be contaminated with Campylobacter, the premier cause of food poisoning in Europe and North America. Just imagine if there were a simple treatment that could be applied to poultry at the slaughterhouse to cut that contamination rate significantly. There would likely be an immediate reduction in the numbers of people succumbing to campylobacteriosis. There are technologies that could fit the bill, but would consumers welcome them? There is little point marketing chicken that is safe, but which nobody is prepared to buy.
It is heartening to see that the UK Food Standards Agency understands how important it is to get consumers on-board with novel technologies before they are widely applied. They have demonstrated this by surveying 2,000 consumers about their views on four decontamination methods that could be applied to poultry meat. Asked their opinions on rapid chilling, lactic acid, ozone and hot water/steam treatments, the respondents came down very strongly against the chemical options and in favour of rapid chilling, while reactions to hot water/steam were neutral. That’s an interesting, though perhaps predictable result, but what was really interesting was the change observed when more explanation of each process was provided. Acceptance of the lactic acid treatment shot up from 15% to 54%. Giving people the facts needed to make an informed choice clearly makes a big difference and can help overcome inherent distrust of “chemicals” being used in food production. The Agency can now use the survey results to avoid wasting time developing decontamination technologies that consumers will never accept.
The FSA survey represents a clear illustration of the need to be open about the technology used in modern food production. Giving unpopular processes more consumer-friendly names – electron-beam pasteurisation is still ionising radiation – or adopting an almost covert approach to introducing novel processing methods are counter-productive strategies in the long run. The only way to present new technologies to the public is to be completely honest and transparent about them from day one. They may still be rejected, but have a much greater chance of acceptance than something smuggled in under the radar that generates widespread outrage and suspicion when eventually revealed by the glare of publicity.