Georgofili World

Newsletter of the Georgofili Academy

Press-related Panic

Is a press preview on increased cancer risks due to meat consumption able, by itself, to throw consumers in a modern developed country into a panic? If we consider what has happened, we must admit that, at least apparently, is exactly what happened. Thus the umpteenth food crisis, which is not a real crisis, started and became a real one when we take the facts and their consequences into consideration. Our consumer, a gourmet with a liking for eating traditions and enthusiastic about good food, is actually a coward and immediately loses his head. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last. The more the importance of food grows, even economically, the more irrational behaviors caused by obscure reasons and primitive fears increase. Recent years have been overrun with examples where panic spread and struck foodstuffs; blue mozzarellas, organic salad with E. coli, chickens flesh with avian flu, and so on. News media exasperated by the need for an ever bigger audience and by dropping sales cannot be an objective information source. It only spreads the most terrifying things, causing absurd and disproportionate reactions. We Italians are among the most fearful consumers of the developed world. If it turns out that the alarms were exaggerated, the damage and a negative recollection still remain to penalize consumption.
We must ask ourselves why this happens and why we are unable to have more effective information. However, perhaps some blame also goes to those who, with good intentions, stand in as defenders of the food under attack. Let us take the case of meat.  The fact of the matter is the risk and its potential increase. The alarm starts precisely from the concept of risk. However, if the consumer does not know what the risk of an event taking place is, he cannot understand what a 1% or 10% increase in risk means. Then fear spreads.
If we use inadequate, unacceptable, or barely credible arguments to reduce fear, the damage increases. Someone has labeled the authors of the research (which is not research) as irresponsible because disseminating the results would jeopardize a production chain of 180,000 people in Italy. Nothing would change whether it was 1,800,000  or only 180 if the use of meat were truly a mortal danger. Many have taken care to say that meat from Italy is safe. If meat is harmful, it all is. Others say that the greatest risk depends on how it is prepared; its origin changes nothing if the risk is because of its composition or nutritional aspects. Still others maintain that the meat available in Italy is safer, as it is highly controlled (and that is true), but if it is harmful, it is always so whether controlled or not. Some say we have always eaten it, therefore we will continue to do so without increasing the risk. This, of course, is not true because if new discoveries demonstrated that it was harmful, it would be banned. The oddest defense is the one that, with a wink, basically says to just eat less. As regards the sins of the flesh in Italy, there is a certain leniency nonetheless…
In short, there was a great fuss but then the crisis eased as the days passed. Consumption has resumed and the holiday binge is safe.
We must consider the underlying and recent causes of these behaviors and recommend prudence and moderation when tackling such serious issues. Human beings are omnivorous. Their healthy growth needs the right balance of all foods, including irreplaceable animal protein. Shall we start all over again from here?


Dario Casati - dario.casati@unimi.it



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