The 7th Food Packaging Forum (FPF) workshop on “Improving the chemical safety of food contact articles: Accelerating science and innovation” took place on October 24, 2019, in Zurich, Switzerland. The talk by David Michaels from The George Washington University, Washington DC, U.S., focused on explaining how “manufactured scientific uncertainty” has been and is being used by industry to delay regulatory actions on harmful products.
Michaels started by recalling a quote from an internal document written in 1969 by Brown & Williamson, a consultancy involved in tobacco campaigning in the 1960s: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy.” He explained that this “playbook,” focused on making “the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate,” has been used by the industry ever since. It allows for maintaining a sense of uncertainty in the debates on scientific issues of high importance, including harmful effects of chemicals as well as climate change. The activities aimed at maintaining doubt are carried out by “scientists hired to defend products or activities in regulatory and legal arenas,” whose task is “to influence regulation and litigation, not to provide valid science.”
The presented views have been summarized in Michaels’ 2008 book “Doubt is Their Product.” In February 2020, his new book will be coming out, called “The Triumph of Doubt.” This book provides further “details [on] how corporations manipulate science not just to defend dangerous products and activities, but also to market them as safe.”
Michaels concluded his talk by urging the industry to rethink this questionable strategy. Although it may appear financially “justified” in the short-term, the long-term losses could be substantial, he argues, as the recent high-profile court cases with baby powder and glyphosate are demonstrating. Michaels also offered his opinion on “what needs to change” in order to finally ensure adequate protection of public health: chemicals should not be regarded as “innocent until proven guilty.” On the contrary, chemicals should be thoroughly assessed before marketing, and “producers of potentially hazardous chemicals must pay for the research, but not control it.” Further, “research on safety of products must be directed, conducted and interpreted by independent, unconflicted scientists.” In addition, Michaels called for toxic chemicals to be regulated “by class, not one by one.”
David Michaels (2008). “Doubt is Their Product: How industry’s assault on science threatens your health.” Oxford University Press
David Michaels (2020). “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark money and the science of deception.” Oxford University Press