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Dr Gabriel Scally

Nutrition: Full disclosure on food and nutrition | FENS Symposium




Hello and welcome to the safefood podcast.

I'm Dr. Aileen McGloin, director of marketing and communications at safefood. And this is a special edition of the nutrition podcast series, where we're bringing you a recording of a symposium hosted by safefood, at the 2019 Federation of European Nutrition Societies Conference in Dublin.

The symposium asked, what advice does the public believe, and outlined challenges for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners.

Each one of the four contributors is available to listen to individually. There's also a separate podcast where all speakers are featured in full.

This podcast features Dr. Gabriel Scally, epidemiologist, honorary professor at the University of Bristol and author of the cervical screening report who addressed the conference on the need for open access to food science research. He also talked about the necessity for ingredients lists to be large enough to read.


Thanks very much, I'm very aware that we were supposed to have moved into discussion questions by now, so I'll keep this ultra quick and short, I think.

So my range of involvement in food and health issues goes back a long way, all through my career from doing epidemiological research and the INTER salt study, running the Belfast centre for the INTER salt study and salt hypertension a long time ago, all the way through to having to decide where to place the pyres of the cattle and sheep carcasses during the last big foot and mouth outbreak in these islands, in my region of England.

I wanted to talk about the science and I want to disagree a little bit with Robert, I think the Irish Cancer Society is a fantastic organisation, but I'm afraid Robert I disagree with a couple of things and I'll explain why.

This is really interesting, this is scientific and technical journal articles published per 100,000 people and a huge variation within Europe and that, just absolutely vast variation. So one, there's a huge inequality in the production of science across European countries per 100,000.

Even more important, this is only a short, this is a 2000, 2013 but you can see this is open access content in PubMed.

But look at the total content, the blue and the green, although it's titled green, only the open access is colored green, so there's been a huge growth and continues to be, and if you look at the curve going back another 20 or 30 years, it's an exponential growth going upwards in the publications of science.

But look at the proportion that's open access, the rest are not open access. I cannot believe that I'm the only person in this room who has cursed at their computer screen when you want to read a paper, you need to read it now, tonight when you're doing this and you can't get past a paywall. And that is, and we are predominantly professionals here.

So this notion of there being ready access to science is not true, it just is not true, it's become more difficult as universities have reduced their subscriptions to hard copy journals and some even have reduced their access to electronic.

Secondly, if you are operating across boundaries as I like to be and many people in public health are transdisciplinary and you happen to be in a university that doesn't happen to have a faculty of something or other, you cannot get journals in that arena and therefore your ability to engage on policy issues is really, really, really reduced.

Secondly, this issue of paywalls and I love this, this is the business of scholarship. It's about paywalls, it's about making money, and since journals have changed their moneymaking, you know, the reason those are open source is because someone has paid up money for those articles to be published.

And there are good examples now of the research bodies, for example, in the UK you will not get funded by a national research body unless you commit to publishing an open access journal and you have to build into your budgets payment for that, which is great if you happen to be funded by a research council, but if you're a young researcher, if you're working in policy issues and transdisciplinary issues that don't fit into the rubric, you are in real difficulty getting access.

So, there are ways around it course, not, I am told that a Sci-Hub is a very useful thing when you feel frustrated in the night and apparently you can look at WordPress and they'll tell you which the server is that's operating in the present time. You go hunting there but they're shutdown almost as quickly as a Sci-Hub open up new servers, but I am told that it's a very useful source, I can't actually confirm or deny that.

One of the other issues about information, do we know what we're actually getting anyway, this is five months this year, the EU ran a program seeking out fake food and drink and seized a hundred million euros worth as part of this little programme. And you all may, some of you may have heard about the horse meat scandal, which affected this country particularly. And do we really know what's in our food? I think the evidence is that the jury is still out on that and certainly the EU remains extremely concerned about it.

I want to talk about ingredients, actually just one final thing on ingredients. I'm very, I'm a great fan of Michael Poland's rules. You know, never eat anything with an ingredient list of more than five items and if you can't pronounce any of the ingredients in the ingredient list, don't eat it either.

And ingredient lists, have you ever tried, particularly on a small item to read an ingredient list without the aid of a microscope? You know, it's really, really extremely difficult. In 2014, the EU introduced new regulations, but the maximum, the minimum height has to be, I think, 0.9 millimeters of text. I can hardly get my fingers, you know, opened the 0.9, I can't read ingredient lists and the average consumer cannot understand ingredient lists, cannot read ingredient lists on a lot of products.

I want to start with fruit and veg game. One of the greatest things that was introduced in England during my time as the regional director of public health, the free piece of fruit and now veg for every school child under the age of seven, in my region, we got given 5 million pounds to do the purchasing of that completely failed to convince the nutritionists in the Department of Health that sustainability should be involved in it or that we should do anything at all around that and we completely failed to do that.

The Soil Association took samples of the fruit that was being provided to our school children and took samples of the same fruit from local supermarkets and found that the pesticides residues were higher in the fruit that we were providing to the schools funded by the Department of Health funding that.

I was absolutely shocked and horrified by that. That led to me getting involved with the Soil Association as a result of that scandalous outcome, the expert committee on pesticides residues in food setup this monitoring report, this is from spring term. Their last monitoring report was in the summer of 2017 because this report in particular and the one following it caused such scandals that they've stopped the publication of the data. Now it's been taken over by the Department of Health and I have been unable to find any subsequent data, but this is pears, if you look at pears and they test, they tested for a very large number of pesticides, something like 300 are what they tested it was. And if you see the number of residues on the left hand column in brackets, and you can see, there were two pears there, Belgium and Portugal, which had nine separate pesticide residues in them.

Now we don't know much about pesticides. What we do know about pesticides is devolved either from developed either from animal models or from major human, major dose human exposure, we know very little about chronic long term dosage, and we know exceedingly little about the cocktail effects that are increasingly described between long term small dose multiple pesticides exposures.

This is raisins given to children, they looked at four samples. There were pesticide residues in all of them. And each of those samples had either six, seven, or eight pesticide residues in one sample of raisins. And that's what's being given to children, of course those aren't listed anywhere. Yes, of course the dosages are well under the level, but I really wonder that if parents taking their children under age of seven to school, were told that your child will be given a pear with nine different pesticide residues on it, would they be content with that? I wouldn't be content and I don't believe that they should be either, but they're not told.

So there is a lack of information. Antibiotic over use is another huge problem, I've been particularly concerned about it in the UK and it's a big issue there because of the issue of antimicrobial resistance, of course it is. But the huge variation in the amount being used in different countries with the US leading very substantially, many countries have shown it's possible to farm with less antibiotics, antibiotic used in pigs, poultry, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden is three to five times lower than in the UK.

Again, very little information given to the public about these issues and it is not being treated seriously the way it absolutely should be. I am an advocate now of organic food. I don't believe in it being used in treating cancer patients, that's absolute nonsense. I think if we ate a healthy organic diet, I think there's every chance we'd get a lot less cancer of certain types, but it's absolutely nothing to do with curing cancer.

And this is the share of the total area in, in agriculture that is organic by country and as you can see, Austria is way up there with 23% of their land given over to organic farming. And as you can see, Ireland is barely better than Malta and Iceland, neither of which have any huge, for obvious reasons, agricultural land, particularly in Iceland. It's 1.7% and the UK is very close as well.

So it's a huge variation, but the progress that some countries have made in terms of shifting to organic agriculture, sustainability, low use of pesticides, low use of antibiotics, low carbon and seasonality is amazing.

And this is the total area fully converted under, and under conversion by country 2017 - 2012. I just highlighted two places, Ireland had a huge increase of you know, 40% in that five years as I remarked once upon a time to the Department of Health to discuss the sort of thing. An additional 40% of bugger all is still bugger all.

So it hasn't really changed and the UK, as you can see the arrow at the bottom has actually experienced a 15 point percent, 6% decrease in the amount of land, decrease at a time when the UK has a huge problem with the nutrition of its population.

So I would suggest, we should be talking about behaviour change and I heard some of the stuff, papers, eloquent papers given about behaviour change, but they go back to, I don't know if you remember, know of the paper by Crawford about victim blaming and that what happens often in public health is that a finger is pointed at people.

So we've been very good in public health, pointing the finger at smokers and telling them, you should stop smoking and it took us a long time to get round to pointing the finger at the tobacco companies and saying you should stop producing cigarettes 'cause they're killing people. We still point the finger and I worry about us pointing the finger at the public and causing that conflict.

And that's the other thing I disagree with about your Coca Cola analogy with the two. The goodies, the good side can never compete with the budgets that the big companies have and the supermarkets have, never have. There is a need for behaviour change, but it's from governments and civil society organisation. It's change in our agricultural systems and our food production system and our food retail systems so the people get an opportunity to buy fresh, seasonal food close to their homes at a price they can all afford. Thank you very much.


That was Dr. Gabriel Scally, speaking at a FENS symposium at the Convention Center in Dublin.

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Until the next time, goodbye.



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