Judging by the comments from exhibitors and attendees plus the general look of things, the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo satisfied the hunger, both practical and intellectual, of more than 15,000 attendees.
That's the same number that attended the previous New Orleans show, in 2008, and remains below the 20,000 or so who attend the Chicago shows. But the mood at this year's June 11-14 meeting and show seemed more upbeat than the 2008 New Orleans show.
Kicking off the affair was keynoter Michael Specter, New Yorker staff writer, journalist and author of "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives." "I've covered wars and natural disasters, but I've never covered anything as controversial as food," he said
He and a food industry panel provided a provocative discussion on consumer mistrust of food science and what the industry can do to change that image.
Anti-science attitudes are dangerous, Specter said, noting a wide-ranging mistrust of genetically modified foods. "Environmental issues exist with genetically modified food," he acknowledged. "There are political and philosophical issues. [But] there isn't a health issue. There's never been a single person becoming sick from eating a genetically engineered food."
Consumers need to understand and accept that all scientific progress comes with attendant risks. It's up to organizations and individuals to evaluate that risk and make a decision about whether to accept specific scientific and technological innovations, according to Specter.
"Unfortunately society has become increasingly risk averse," he said. "More and more, we have come to embrace precautionary principles, which suggest we should not engage in any sort of activity unless we have mapped out all possible risks. Such an approach makes it impossible for society to advance and progress; with this attitude, there would have been no X-rays, no antibiotics, no green revolution," Specter said.
But this is the food industry, and it has a responsibility to be precautionary, especially now that food companies are embracing new science such as nanotechnology.
Specter cited the example of raw milk as a product that consumers may perceive to be "natural" and beneficial while in reality "it's deadly," he said. "One of the things we don't teach about risk is the risk of not doing things," he said. "If we don't pasteurize milk, there is a risk that 23,000 kids will die."
Speaking to the crowd of food technologists, Specter noted scientists tend to rely on a logical presentation of data without recognizing the importance of addressing the beliefs and emotions that consumers associate with a technology.
"You can't just say, 'look at the data,'" Specter said. "Instead, the food industry needs to do a better job of communication -- using tools that include the Internet and social media. Go out and educate. Fight on the internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They're not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here."
"In 30 years in this business, I've never seen more anxiety," offered Linda Eatherton, director of global food & nutrition at public relations agency Ketchum. She was one of three food industry representatives who joined Specter for a panel discussion after his talk.
"I don't think we do a good enough job of being on the offensive," said panelist Mary Wagner, senior vice president of global R&D and quality at Starbucks Coffee Co. "We have to find a venue to do that and to do that together [as an industry]."
The food industry needs to do a better job of "storytelling," contended panelist Martin Cole, chief of CSIRO Food and Nutritional Sciences, an Australian research institute. "We need to need make the issues real and personal."
In other presentations during the expo, officials from the White House, USDA and IFT discussed the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, as well as their visual representation, MyPlate, which was publicized just before the show.
Other recent news events discussed were the German E. coli outbreak and the possibility of radiation in food from Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown … as well as more typical food technology subjects such as sodium reduction, obesity, nanotechnology and sustainable agriculture.