October 28, 2016
Guest blog post by Franc Bogovic MEP.
I recently accepted an invitation from Nestlé to visit their research facilities in Lausanne.
Food looks deceptively simple. People are making yoghurts, biscuits, ice creams for ages. The processes are always the same: boiling, steaming, churning, drying, freezing… Nothing high tech about it.
And yet, why is Nestlé spending €1.6 billion each year on food research, if it would be so simple?
As former Slovenian Minister of Agriculture and Environment, and as a food producer, food safety and quality has always been my top priority. Food safety is not negotiable. Also today, in the European Parliament, many of the most intense discussions are about this topic: In last two years there were many discussions about use of GMO technology, pesticide use, endocrine disruptors and especially in last few months about trade agreements to name just a few of them. These discussions are often demagogic, without respecting science. People in Europe often believe that science behind your food is often misleading, in the hands of multinational companies.
The opposite is usually true. It is important to evaluate soberly and look at every case separately. Science can help to protect consumers. During the horsemeat scandal for example, many private labs, such as the biosafety lab run by Nestlé’s, were able to run tests in one day, where commercial or public labs took 10 times longer. This helped not just the companies connected to the labs, but also governments to assess the seriousness of the situation, and to work with the supply chain to resolve it. There are now methods to detect any kind of foreign DNA in any product.
Over the years we have learnt of many shocking examples, in which consumers have been misled through added chemicals to think their food is “low-fat” or “fat free” for example or through the use of too much additional sugar and salt (famous in fast-food), in order to create an addiction of the consumer to various products. Researchers point to studies that show that too much sugar (both in the form of natural sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup) not only makes us fat, it also wreaks havoc on our liver, mucks up our metabolism, impairs brain function, and may leave us susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, even cancer.
I now learnt in Lausanne for example that Nestlé drastically reduced salt in its pizzas by using it only at the bottom of the crust. No consumer can tell, because the bottom of the crust is the only part that always touches the tongue. Cleverly deceptive, but we need to invest also in making people more used to a less salty or less sweet taste.
As an MEP but also an apple producer, I know about the positive impact of nutrition on health. Nestlé’s Institute of Health Sciences is looking at how not just apples, but also processed food products can keep the doctor away. They do this by developing personalized nutrition that delivers the right nutrients to each individual, in the right quantity at any given moment. These developments are also ongoing in the pharma sector, and the borders are getting more blurred. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer to eat instead of taking drugs to stay healthy.
My takeaway from this visit is that there are many challenges, and food is right in the middle of it. Companies such as Nestlé are investing heavily in R&D to address these complex issues. As a politician I believe that we should create the right incentives for the whole industry to address them. I am looking forward to comparing different models with each other over the next years. What I saw in Lausanne was already impressive. But it is of course easier for a Europe’s larger food producer to spend huge amounts on R&D than it is for SMEs in the sector. Will Nestlé share the results and findings benevolently with all of us, or will others have to pay dearly for their findings?
During my visit, I didn’t see much boiling or steaming or churning. I saw gene sequencing, brain health research, nutrient profiling, molecular typing… The future of food is high tech, and it can be a bright future. For that we need to examine carefully and properly weigh advantages and disadvantages against each other. We cannot be naive and believe we can feed an ever growing population in highly industrialised nations with the produce of ‘granny’s farm’, as it is still depicted in children’s books. At the same time we need to be en garde vis-á-vis an industry in general, which too often has placed profit before consumer protection.
As a conservative politician in the Agricultural Committee, I feel most comfortable in my skin, when these topics are being debated soberly and with a clear mind. The politician’s, who bedevil all science and chemicals in food are just as naive and mislead as the ones blindly following the large multinationals in their company, because of the amount of employment they create in their respective constituencies.
It seems as if a complete rethinking of our eating and food producing culture is in need; and we should commence by the way we educate our children. Children must be taught to respect food, which also includes reducing food waste, they also need to be encouraged to produce food for themselves and others. In this connection we need to show them the modern and digital reality of farms and food production. And we, as parents and grandparents, need to teach our children to produce, buy and eat food consciously. That can also be processed food. It simply depends.