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Archive for September, 2014

Another topic in relation to controversial science we have been discussing in class is that of experts and expertise. I hope to explore in this post and following posts, the intriguing topic of experts and expertise in relation to the ‘raw’ milk debate / controversy.So who are the experts in the ‘raw’ milk debate?

  • Public health epidemiologists
  • Public health and government policy makers
  • Scientists and researchers
  • Law makers
  • Medical doctors
  • Pathologists
  • Dairy farmers
  • Milk producers
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates
  • ‘Raw’ milk consumers

In the context of the debate, who is and who should be providing the expertise? Who is providing the relevant (and correct) information to all parties involved? Who do citizens and consumers trust? Who communicates their message most effectively? Who claims to be an expert when they are not suitably qualified or don’t meet the set criteria?

These are complex questions that I will explore further in my next post.

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I am wondering if some of the issues that have arisen in the ‘raw’ milk debate / controversy revolve around voluntary and involuntary risks? That is – consumers chose to consume ‘raw’ milk knowing the risk versus consumers not being given a choice or not informed of the risks involved.

I think voluntary risk is a key component. It seems ‘raw’ milk consumers choose to consume ‘raw’ milk knowing the risks involved. Are they well informed? Do they know the risks? Are advocacy groups communicating false or misleading messages about the safety of ‘raw’ milk? Do consumers really know the risks when they drink that glass of ‘raw’ milk or eat that piece of cheese that was made with ‘raw’ milk?

In the context of the ‘raw’ milk debate, are the misleading and false messages about the safety of ‘raw’ milk put forth by ‘raw’ milk advocates, persuading consumers to consume ‘raw’ milk? Are these consumers then involuntarily exposed to food-borne pathogens when consuming ‘raw’ milk? Do they assume it is safe?

What if public health agencies gave clear cut information about the risks involved? What if these agencies communicated this message in a way that members of the public could understand? Consumers, sufficiently informed and be able to weigh up the risks, could choose whether or not to consume ‘raw’ milk? What if these agencies clearly stated the relative risk, that is the risk posed to an individual from drinking ‘raw’ milk?

Would you be more inclined to consume ‘ raw’ milk or any products made from ‘raw’ milk, knowing the relative risk of contracting a food-borne illness?

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Do governments, policy makers and public health agencies fail to let the public have a say in the ‘raw’ milk debate?

Should citizens be given the right to choose whether or not they consume ‘raw’ milk?

Or do governments, public health agencies and policy makers, along with milk producers and manufacturers have an obligation to provide consumers with milk that is safe and therefore pasteurised?

Has the ‘raw’ milk debate (controversy) become a glaring example of over zealous government regulation of the food industry?

Should dairy farmers, artisan cheese and yoghurt producers and consumers freely produce, sell and consume ‘raw’ milk and products made with ‘raw’ milk and face the consequences?

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With my readings and research on the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate, a few key elements keep coming to the forefront of my mind –

  • Governments and public health agencies, in most of their communications about ‘raw’ (unpasteurised) milk, discuss ‘raw’ milk as a source of disease causing bacteria and tell readers not to consume ‘raw’ milk or products made with ‘raw’ milk
  • Governments, public health agencies, epidemiologists and scientists present epidemiological data of food-borne illness caused by the consumption of ‘raw’ milk as evidence of the risk involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • Governments, public health agencies use descriptions of food-borne illness symptoms and stories of severe complications and even death to highlight the dangers of consuming ‘raw’ milk and to dissuade people from consuming it
  • Government and public health communications also dispute the health benefit claims of ‘raw’ milk advocates
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates regularly discuss the safety of ‘raw’ milk and make claims about the health benefits it can offer (such as ‘curing’ asthma, allergies and lactose intolerance) using testimonial and anecdotal accounts
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates dispute the information provided by governments, public health agencies and scientists regarding the risks of consuming ‘raw’ milk and food-illness infection rates
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates bring political issues (legal control over the sale of ‘raw’ milk, perceived government control over what citizens can consume etc) into the debate over the sale and consumption of ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates provide testimonial and anecdotal accounts, along with reassurances over the cleanliness of farming and milking processes as a means of convincing people that ‘raw’ milk is safe
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocates use scientists and medical doctors who are not necessarily experts in food-borne illness, infectious disease and bacteriology or have clear conflicts of interests (are ‘raw’ milk drinkers or producers) to lend credibility to their side of the argument
  • I would like to explore these points in more detail in up coming posts. I am especially intrigued by the use of scientists and doctors to lend credibility to the pro-‘raw’ milk side / faction.

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A great quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson courtesy of the Scientista Foundation and I Fucking Love Science that relates to science and controversies in science – Facebook quote

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Last night I had a fabulous opportunity to attend the University of Queensland final of the Three Minute Thesis competition. The final was held at a lovely historic building, Customs House in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland.

Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) is a research communication competition developed by The University of Queensland which challenges research higher degree students to present a compelling oration on their thesis and its significance in just three minutes in language appropriate to a non-specialist audience (Three Minute Thesis). It is a fantastic example of science communication – taking a complex scientific topic and transforming it into an engaging, accessible and lay audience appropriate story.

The competition, held in a spectacular room complete with a dome, was hosted by a local radio host. Students from the faculties and institutes presented their 3 minute presentations to the audience.

A gut feeling helps Megan win Three-Minute Thesis competition showcases the winner of the final and her research into pre- and probiotics and kidney disease.

Afterwards I had the opportunity to attend a cocktail reception on the outside terrace. One of Brisbane’s most famous bridges, the Story Bridge, was lit up with purple lights. The moon rising behind the bridge was a sight to behold.

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In my previous post (Risk Communication and the ‘Raw’ Milk Controversy – Viewpoints) I discussed briefly what happens when risk communication fails – risk information vacuums are created. According to Powell and Leiss, 2004, who analysed risk communication and its failures, these risk information vacuums can be filled by other sources. These include –

  • Fears and concerns that form a substantial consensus in the public opinion arena
  • Interest groups peddling their own information and perspectives on the risk issues
  • Media reports that form the public framing of risks
  • Soothing and placating words from politicians

Has there been risk communication failures in the ‘raw’ milk controversy? From my research on the topic, I think there has been some failings from both the expert (scientific, public health and medical) and general public sides. These could include –

  • Experts expecting the public to understand epidemiological statistics and research reports on food-borne illness infection linked to ‘raw’ milk consumption
  • Experts expecting the public to understand the inherent risks involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • Experts failing to understand that individuals what to make the choice of consuming ‘raw’ milk themselves (i.e. In relation to legal and legislative restrictions around the sale of ‘raw’ milk)
  • The public expects experts to give them the facts and allow them to make their own informed decisions about whether to consume ‘raw’ milk or not
  • Experts can been seen as condescending and treat the public as ignorant
  • The public feel they lack a say in the ‘raw’ milk debate
  • The public distrusts government and industry experts who they believe will not give them all the facts
  • Key Failure – both sides do not listen nor value the input from the other side.

I do however agree that the side of the experts (with scientific, public health and medical knowledge) should not consider anecdotal and testimonial accounts presented by ‘raw’ milk advocates to be of equal standing. Rigorous scientific research needs to be conducted to verify these claims. In this context I can see why experts do not accept the public’s information and viewpoint.

Coming back to what fills the risk information vacuums caused by failures in risk communication. The following appears to play a role in filling the vacuum/s in relation to the ‘raw’ milk controversy –

  • Public fears over food-borne illness
  • Public concerns over the safety of food
  • Sensationalised media reports, government websites and individual testimonies on the perils of consuming ‘raw’ milk, including personal stories of illness and the human toll of consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups providing advice to consumers about the safety of ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups peddling conspiracy theory ideas about government control over food and what people can choose to eat
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups lobbying for producers of ‘raw’ milk

There is likely to be many more elements that fill the rusk information vacuum in relation to the ‘raw’ milk controversy. As I discover these, I will discuss them.

References
Powell, D. & Leiss, W. (2004). Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk (2nd edition). McGill-Queen’s University Press. Quebec City, Canada
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