Fake food news is unwanted but serious distraction

The effects of fake food news could be as bad as the measles outbreaks in recent years caused by people not trusting vaccines, says EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis.

There have been some recent developments to back up his fears.

Perhaps the biggest recent scandal in this area is the resignation of Dr Brian Wansink, a researcher in nutrition and eating behavior, at Cornell University in the US.

He will retire from Cornell at the end of this academic year. He has been removed from all teaching and research so that he can co-operate with the university in its ongoing review of his prior research.

The US Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines are based in part on his work. He collected government grants, helped shape marketing practices at food companies, and worked with the White House to influence food policy.

His work has been cited more than 20,000 times in food research papers.

But other researchers started noticing problems with Wansink’s use of questionable statistical methods.

He was found to be creating hypotheses to fit data patterns that emerged after an experiment was over.

He pressured graduate students to use this unreliable statistical analysis to generate “interesting”results.

The prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association retracted six of Wansink’s articles in a single day.

A Cornell University investigation found Wansink committed academic misconduct, and 13 of his research papers were retracted.

It’s not the only recent life science research scandal.

Harvard Medical School recently called for the retraction of 31 papers by a former faculty member working with cardiac stem cells, alleging the faculty member included falsified and/or fabricated data, and at least one patient died during a clinical trial based in part on that fraudulent work.

According to Brian Moynihan in the Global Graduate Meat Department at Bord Bia, such scandals may point to a much wider problem of best practice being lost in the battle between researchers competing for a finite amount of funding. Some argue that the level of statistical significance required to have a study published in a top research journal is now too low, and that higher standards should be demanded.

That would lessen the danger of fake food news based on fake research findings. But there is also the problem of fake food news which is just plain inaccurate.

The UK media has had so much of this (such as the EU is regulating on the size of cucumbers) that the European Commission’s representation in London publishes a Euromyths section in its website to debunk inaccurate information.

Some fake news can seriously damage citizens’ trust in the food system and in science in general, warns Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Andriukaitis.

He adds: “We might disagree on opinions, but facts should remain facts”.

He says European policy makers are tackling the threat of fake food news.

That is good news for farmers and processors whose products make the EU the world’s largest global exporter of agri-food products (it is also the largest importer).

Andriukaitis says we should all be proud of the quality of European food products. Hence the EU’s fight against fake news, misinformation, and lies, which is more rife than ever in these days of digital media.

Andriukaitis made it clear dealing with misinformation is an unwanted distraction when the EU is already busy with real issues like glyphosate and the transparency of the EU’s own scientific studies; food labelling; food scandals and frauds which are often due to criminal activity; food sustainability; and healthy diets.

In many of these areas, and particularly the latter case (with 52% of the adult EU population overweight or obese), accurate information on food can be a life or death matter.

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