Leafbox
Leafbox Podcast
Interview: Professor Erik Millstone
0:00
-1:37:54

Interview: Professor Erik Millstone

Questioning Authority: Emeritus Professor Erik Millstone on Scientific Policy and Risk Management in the Food Chain

Erik Millstone is an Emeritus Professor of Science Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex. He gained a first degree in Physics, followed by three postgraduate degrees in Philosophy.

His expertise centers on the role of scientific expertise and evidence in managing technological risks, especially those arising in the food chain.

Currently retired but still active in doctoral advising and public commentary. We connected to discuss food safety, regulation, questioning authority, Iran, Brexit, and his past as a scientist, and researcher.

Connect with Professor Millstone


Leafbox:

Professor Millstone, thank you again for meeting with me, but what first drew you to food science and science policy and agriculture and regulation? I think you had a degree in philosophy, or three of them I understand, in physics. So maybe you can just walk us all the way back to what drew you to this topic of interest.

Professor Millstone:

It was entirely accidental, as you indicated. I did a first degree in physics, but while doing physics, accidentally I succumbed to a very severe attack of philosophy. I did indeed do three postgraduate degrees in philosophy. And then in 1973, I was appointed to a post at the University of Sussex in England to teach the history and philosophy of science.

But while I was a graduate student in philosophy, I'd been introduced by an American friend of mine, who he was also a philosophy graduate student at the university in London. He was from Southern California, but he was a avid reader of, and introduced me to, the New York Review of Books. And I found it a very interesting publication. I used to buy every issue as it came out. And then in March '74, I read an article that changed my life. The article was called "Death for Dinner," and it was written by an American journalist reviewing several books published in the US. The gist of which was that the American food industry was effectively ripping off and poisoning its consumers.

I mean, it was ripping them off by taking cheap and plentiful ingredients and processing them into relatively scarce and expensive products, but also introducing into those products loads of chemical food additives that either hadn't been properly tested or in some cases had been tested, but evidence had emerged indicating that they might be harmful, yet nonetheless, they remained in the food supply. At the time,  the article claimed, and I checked this, that life expectancy in the USA was then falling, or at any rate that adult life expectancy in the US was then declining.

That really shocked me.I don't know what came over me, but I did something I'd never done before. I took a copy of the article, and I dug around to find out which office in which department of which ministry of the British government dealt with the food safety issues.

I found it was in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I sent them a copy of the article and asked them if I could have a conversation with them about it. Essentially, I was interested to ask, is the same true in Britain? 

I was eventually offered an appointment, but when I showed up in good time for the appointment, I was kept waiting in an ante-room for an hour and a half or two hours. I was expecting to meet one or two people and they would say, "Oh, don't worry, that's only in the USA, everything's fine here." Instead, I was summoned into a room and I think there were... I can't remember precisely whether it was seven or nine people lined up behind a long table with a seat in front for the delinquent school-boy, as it were, that I was supposed to sit on.

Only the person in the middle spoke, and I paraphrase, but essentially he said, "Go away little man, get your nose out of our business." I assumed if he had a reassuring narrative to tell, he'd have told it. I sort of stumbled out into the street outside and sat down in a coffee shop and got myself a drink. And I thought, if those people had a decent story to tell, they'd have told it; they've got something to hide. I'm going to dig into this, and I started digging. 

For the first five or so years, all the information I could find then was from the USA. Nobody in the UK was looking at those issues at all. Interestingly enough, back then in the mid-1970s, US food standards were higher than those in the UK or in Europe.  Things have changed a great deal since then, and we can talk about how and why they've changed. But I was just reading all kinds of information about food policy and the more I read, the more problems I uncovered. So that started in  1974. I worked away on my own for 10 years. I tried to get contracts to write books about the UK’s food system and I couldn't find a publisher that was remotely interested. But somebody on the editorial team of the London-based publication New Scientist heard that I had something interesting to say about food and chemical safety. They asked me to write, I think, two thousand, two and a half thousand words, which I duly did. I didn't hear from them in a while and I phoned them up and said, "Did you get my piece?" And they said, "Oh, hasn't anybody told you? It's the cover story tomorrow."

The next morning I was on the main radio news program in the UK on the BBC and half an hour later on BBC Television. Within a week, one of Britain's leading publishing houses, Penguin Books, offered me a contract to write two books on food and health. I then found myself amongst a small group of like-minded people in the mid-80s.

Then through a strange sequence of coincidences, food safety policy rapidly rose up the agenda in Britain starting with food additives and chemicals in the food supply. But shortly after, there were issues about food poisoning from salmonella in eggs, and then we had mad cow disease, and that just kicked everything off. And that kept me busy for a decade and a half, and then we've had GM food, and I've been working on food safety policy ever since.

Leafbox:

So Erik, moving from the '70s when you first started, what was the evolution in your food research? Were you really starting to work on additives in the beginning or just agricultural processes or animal husbandry? What was your first initial focus?

Professor Millstone:

I started with food additives. I realized that there were important stories to tell about nutrition, excess consumption of fats and sugars and so on, and the relationship with heart disease and obesity. But there were several friends and colleagues who were trained nutritionists who were working on those topics. So I picked an area that nobody else seemed to be working on, at least in Britain and Europe, and that was food additives.

But then I widened my perspective to pesticides, and then, as I said, we had the salmonella-in-eggs scandal. An important event in the second half of the 1980s was that an institution was created in London, called the London Food Commission, which did a lot of important work on a wide range of issues on food safety policy, very much from a consumer protection point of view.

Food safety policy just became an incredibly salient issue in newspapers, in magazines, and in radio and television. There were just waves and waves of documentaries about it. And, as I indicated before, Mad Cow Disease was a huge problem. And it was during the Mad Cow Disease saga, which was the culmination of waves of food safety scares and scandals in Britain, that food policy seemed to be playing a pivotal role in undermining public confidence in the prevailing government, initially led by Margaret Thatcher, but later by John Major.

With a couple of colleagues, we started to address a more general questions than just: is this chemical safe? Is the use of these chemicals acceptable? To look at the structure and operations of food safety policymaking institutions. I conducted a review of those institutions in: the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Austria and Japan.

I think those were the countries I studied, and I compared them to each other. No two of those jurisdictions had identical systems. My colleagues and I sought to identify the most beneficial features from all the available systems. Then we wrote a proposal to create what in the UK came to be known as the Food Standards Agency (or FSA). When the Major government lost an election in the mid-nineties, and Tony Blair's government came into power, one of the first things they did was to develop a proposal, based on the document we'd written, for creating the Food Standards Agency. Indeed, it was established within a few years, although not precisely in the way we had recommended.

So I've been, as it were, both looking at particular food safety issues over the years, but also at a more generic level, studying how food safety policymaking institutions are designed and how they operate, and looking at their benefits and shortcomings and limitations and problems. That's what I'm continuing to do.

Leafbox:

Maybe before we go into the food policy mechanisms, what lessons can we learn from the BSE crisis or the Mad Cow crisis on food safety or public health policy?

Professor Millstone:

Okay. I'll try to keep it brief, because there are quite a lot of lessons. Yes, let me indicate several of them. This won't be an exhaustive list and it won't necessarily be in the order of importance, but it'll be in the order in which I can retrieve them from my memory.

First of all, let me explain; what happened in Mad Cow Disease policymaking, and this is a problem which I fear continues in many jurisdictions, is, that while there were regular official claims that the government was providing ‘evidence-based policy’, what was really happening was ‘policy-based evidence selection and interpretation’. I was even worse than that actually. Firstly, it was represented as "We are doing what and only what the scientists advise us to do." But in practice, behind the scenes, the government, ministers and officials, were carefully selecting, as their expert advisors, only those that they could be confident would give them the advice that they've already decided they want to receive.

One of the dreadful mistakes the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made over Mad Cow Disease was initially insisting that the expert advisory body, which they convened and manipulated, and which consisted initially of only three people, shouldn't include anyone with any expertise on those kinds of diseases. Because if they did, those people would draw attention to the limitations of prevailing knowledge as grounds for asserting the importance of further research and asking for funding for it.

The government didn't want to incur any extra costs, and they didn't want to hear about uncertainties. Essentially what ministers decided to do was to focus on ‘reassuring the public’, to protect the interests of the beef and dairy industries. Their goal was to persuade the public that British beef was perfectly safe, even though cattle were falling over with this dreadful great disease. Ministers rarely ever asked the question, is it safe? Can we be sure that eating beef or drinking milk from animals that have suffered from Mad Cow Disease was safe for consumers? They just assumed that it was really safe and their job was to reassure the public. So that was one of the first mistakes, which was not asking people, not seeking the advice of people with the real relevant expertise, choosing people as experts who they could be relied upon to give them the advice they had already decided they want to receive. And they decided not to commission studies to investigate possible risks. They created conditions under which scientific studies would not to be done.And whenever reputable scientists drew attention to potential problems, the government just trashed them and called them fools and rogues and incompetents. It was dreadful. Initially, Mad Cow Disease obviously occurred in cattle, mostly dairy cattle and dairy cattle that were being fed with high protein supplement that contained rendered down bits of dead animals. When an animal was slaughtered, they cut away the meat and what is left, the bones and the offal, and the bits they can't sell, went to the renderers. that the rendering process separated liquid fats from the solid material called ‘meat and bonemeal’ (or MBM). The meat and bone meal, which contained protein was being incorporated into dairy feed. The carcasses of the animals that were going into the rendering process weren't just cattle, but also sheep, pigs and poultry.  Moreover, sheep flocks in Britain and many other countries suffered with an endemic problem with a type of sheep spongiform encephalopathy, which was colloquially called  Scrapie. The government assumed that carcasses of sheep or the remnants of carcasses from sheep that had Scrapie were going into the rendering process. BSE was also linked to the fact that there had been technical changes in the rendering process in the early 1980s in the UK. Rendering had been a batch process; they would load a retort with the residue of dead animals, cook it all up and get it to a relatively high temperature for a relatively long time in a batch process, and then they'd separate the fat from the MBM. The innovation that was introduced in the early eighties, was a change the rendering system from a batch process to a flow process, so it was continuous.  But one consequence was that the material wasn't raised to such high temperatures and didn't remain at a high temperature for very long. the official hypothesis was that the pathogen that caused Scrapie survived this new rendering process and passed into cattle that were susceptible to it,  and that Mad Cow Disease was and only was Scrapie in cattle.

But the only evidence that people could succumb to Scrapie infections came from the Middle East where there was a practice of eating the brains of sheep. And that didn't happen in the UK at the time, and therefore it was assumed that if BSE was cattle-scrapie then it could not affect people.  ... Also, they insisted, , shepherds who handle flocks of sheep that had Scrapie, didn't get ill from it.  So it was assumed that sheep's Scrapie couldn't be passed to people unless you ate the sheep's brains, which we didn't. However, many scientists who did not work for the government realised that if the Scrapie pathogen got into cattle, we couldn't be sure that the pathogen wouldn't change in some important way or ways that could pose risks to public health. But that line of inquiry wasn't followed by government scientists or their advisors. 

But evidence that undermined the official reassuring narrative started to emerge.  An unfortunate cat in the city of Bristol called Max died from a feline spongiform encephalopathy and got nicknamed ‘Mad Max’.   The same rendered material had been going into pet food as well as the human food supply chain. So there was evidence that BSE could infect other species. Then there was an unfortunate series of zoo animals that also succumbed to a new kind of spongiform encephalopathy. Every time that happened, some people would say: maybe we can't be sure that meat from cattle with BSE is safe for people to eat. The government viciously attacked independent scientists and insisted that it couldn't transmit to people.  Ministers and officials, and of course the beef industry, repeatedly insisted that we could be entirely sure that it was absolutely safe. For 10 years they repeated  their reassuring narrative and denies that there were any scientific uncertainties; they misrepresented Mad Cow Disease as proven to be demonstrably safe when that narrative was always misleading and was confronted by all kinds of problems.

So they misrepresented the science, they concealed the uncertainties, they trashed any scientist or any evidence that threatened to undermine their narrative and continued to insist that British beef was perfectly safe and everyone should keep eating it.

Leafbox:

Professor Millstone, I have a question.

Professor Millstone:

Sure.

Leafbox:

I mean, it's so many parallels to the Covid response I'm just seeing in terms of pressure from government to control the narrative and certain regulatory capture issues as well.

Professor Millstone:

I don't know what's happening in the USA. I have spent all the time since Covid emerged in Britain and Europe, but the governments here weren't concealing uncertainties. They weren't claiming everything was cut and dried, and they never even said, or only very rarely said, that the vaccines were totally safe. They would more carefully say the risks of not but being vaccinated are almost certainly much greater than the risks of being vaccinated. But maybe it was very different in the USA.  The government of the UK and other European countries did want to have control of their national narratives, but they did not abuse the available science. 

Leafbox:

What's the current state of BSE in the UK and globally?

Professor Millstone:

It's a puzzle. When the problem erupted and it became unarguable in the mid-nineties that a small number of people had become fatally ill from a disease resembling Mad Cow Disease that emerged in humans, and which was untreatable and invariably fatal, the official response was: what we have to do now is completely eradicate the BSE pathogen from the food supply, and we must make sure nobody else dies from the new human variant of BSE. After March '96, much stricter measures were imposed than had previously been in place;  there was a very serious effort to try to eradicate BSE infectivity from the animal food chain and the disease from the herds of cattle. But for reasons that nobody can now explain, just occasionally a case of BSE in cattle occurs, and not just in Britain and even not particularly in Britain, but around the world in several different places. And it's as if the pathogen which began in the UK has spread further and wider than had been expected.

And British European beef is massively safer than it was between '85 and '96. But there's still a small residue of it that pops up occasionally in circumstances which nobody yet managed to explain.

Leafbox:

Was the response to regulate the rendering of those animal fats, or how did they cull animal populations?

Professor Millstone:

Initially from 1985 to early 1996, Britain didn't ban rendered material from livestock carcasses entering the animal food chain, but the British government was pushed into it by other members of the European Union. We had to have a Europe- wide response, especially when cases of BSE started appearing in continental Europe. After the March 1996 crisis it was no longer lawful in Europe and the UK to feed meat and bone meal to ruminants, which includes cattle,  sheep and goats. It was banned, which left the slaughtered houses with the problem of how to dispose of the material. It now usually ends up in incinerators and landfill.

Leafbox:

Maybe we can talk about regulatory capture now. I'm just curious what role that was in the UK or in the US or Europe or Japan in terms of the meat industry... How were they responding to the Mad Cow Disease?

Professor Millstone:

We should just clarify the concept of ‘regulatory capture’, in case anyone's not familiar with it. Regulatory capture refers to a situation in which representatives of the industry that the regulators are created to regulate are not just influential, but dominant in the institution set to regulate them.  That was a serious problem during the BSE saga, and it remains a serious problem today.  I think I said earlier in this conversation that, in the 1970s, until Reagan came to power in the early 1980s, food standards in the USA were higher than they were in the UK and Europe. I often drew attention to chemicals that had been banned in the USA but were still permitted in the UK and Europe; I argued that UK and European consumers should not have less safe food than US consumers.  the UK and European food companies and the farming interests massively dominated UK and European policymaking institutions and those of many European governments.  US farming and food industry interests were influential in both the US Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration, but not to the extent that was occurring on the other side of the Atlantic.

A central part of the lessons of the UK’s Mad Cow Disease saga was that the British Ministry of Agriculture Fishers and Food had a contradictory remit. It was supposed simultaneously to look after the commercial interests of farmers in the food industry and also to protect consumers. The tension between those two agendas was, however, so great that it let down every constituency and all stakeholders. And when the Food Standards Agency was set up and subsequently the European Food Safety Authority, they were supposed to both be independent of ministers or in the case of the European institutions, of the European Commission, and also independent of the industry and the firms, whose products they were set up to regulate.

That was an abrupt shift. The Mad Cow Disease saga, that exploded into a massive crisis in March 1996 was a watershed for UK and European food safety policy making institutions.  The crisis triggered processes of institutional reform. Food safety standards in Europe subsequently rose not just up to US standards, but even significantly higher. Food safety standards in Europe and the UK did rise while in the USA, they continued on a process of decline that began in the early eighties when Reagan was president. Initially, when Reagan came into power, the policy  established under previous Democratic administrations was that the use of a chemical in the food supply could be and should be banned if there was evidence that it might cause cancer in laboratory animals or indicate in bacterial culture tests that it could initiate or promote cancers. The Reagan administration changed the evidential benchmark so that it would only be banned if it caused cancer in more than one species of laboratory animals.  A chemical would have to cause cancer in two or more species, such as mice and rats or mice and Guinea pigs.   Then the Reagan administration made the benchmark even more demanding, by insisting that a chemical should not be banned unless it also causes mutations in bacteria. The Reagan administration repeatedly racked up the benchmark for evidence before it could lead to restrictions on chemicals in the food supply. Consequently the US food supply became less safe and even junkier than it already was. After the BSE crisis of the late nineties, on the contrary, provoked European standards to be improved, at least for a while. Part of what I have recently been examining and writing about is evidence that, over the years since the British Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority were set up, they too have over time become captured by, and subordinated to, the industries they were set to regulate.   I fear that the gap between European standards and US standards will diminish and diminish because European standards will decline, not because US standards will improve.

Leafbox:

Who has the best food regulation in terms of balancing safety and I guess the producers as well?

Professor Millstone:

Well, you see, I wouldn't characterize the policy challenge in those terms. Food safety's not about balancing producer and consumer interests. Food safety is about protecting consumers. If governments want to look after industrial interests, ensure safety first, and then sponsor innovation and regulate competition between firms, but don't tangle them up together and don't trade one off against the other. The attempt to trade one off against the other was a key part of the problems that led to the BSE crisis and catastrophe.

Leafbox:

What is the role of consumer preferences in the role of regulation and food safety?

Professor Millstone:

Where and when? That varies from country to country and within countries it varies from time to time.  From the mid eighties, for about 15 years, there was a very powerful wave of consumer pressure groups demanding safer food in Britain and Europe, and they had a big impact. But those considerations are lower down people's agendas now. Interest in food safety started decline when more urgent issues arose. The 2008 financial crisis prompted policies of austerity and many people were more concerned than about food affordability than they were about safety. Then Covid made everything incredibly difficult again, and many other issues came to dominate. Now we've got, God help us,  an appalling war in Europe.

In the UK we've got the economic fallout from the war and also the catastrophic incompetence of a government that was briefly in office last year in the UK. At the moment, the food policy issue at the top of the public policy agenda is poverty and the unaffordability of food for many people, even some of those in work. Even school teachers and hospital nurses in the UK are going to what are called food banks. I don't know whether you use the same expression in the USA, but a food bank is essentially a charitable institution which provides food for free to people who are too poor to buy it. A horrendously high number of households in the UK are currently having to rely on food banks to feed themselves. With food prices and fuel prices rising, the policy debates have been about how to help those people who have to choose between eating or having the heating on because they can't afford to do both.

Leafbox:

On the bio safety issue, what are your most concerning present issues? Is it the declining lack of regulation or is it specific additives? Well, I'm just curious what you're most concerned about? Genetic engineering of food items?

Professor Millstone:

For most of the period we'd been discussing, the UK was a member of the European Union. That is no longer the case, as you will appreciate. So the position in the UK is no longer identical to that in the European Union. Genetically modified foods were introduced in the USA in the nineties and were widely consumed..  Their use is permitted in the EU, but only after they have been tested, and those test results have been officially assessed and their use deemed acceptable, but also if they are incorporated into food products their presence must be indicated on the products label.  

In the dying months of the Clinton administration the US Department of Agriculture did a survey of US consumers and found that something like 80% of them wanted the presence of genetically modified foods to be indicated on the labels of food packets in the USA too. But that was not, and still is not, US federal government policy. And that report has been buried and has never seen the light of day. There was one paper published reporting some of the evidence, but it was quickly withdrawn; though I do have a copy.

In Europe, especially in the aftermath of the Mad Cow disease saga, it was politically unsustainable to have a policy of permitting genetically modified foods to be unlabelled. In the USA, the narrative from the GM food industry and the federal government has been that if GM foods are ‘substantially equivalent’ to their non-GM counterparts, then they will not even have to be tested for safety.   The biotech corporations say  there maybe a difference in the technology by which they are products, but the final products are indistinguishable. But from a European perspective that narrative so strongly resembled the old story that there was no reason to worry about mad cow disease because it's essentially the same disease as sheep scrapie, and sheep scrapie never hurt anyone, so mad cow disease is perfectly safe.

While the US corporations and authorities have got away with the phony narrative that GM foods are substantially equivalent to non-GM foods, the same story was not accepted in Europe. Europe has a labelling requirement for all the genetically modified food that have so far been authorized. As a consequence,  and especially in response to the Mad Cow disease saga, when consumers throughout Europe, but especially in Britain, realised that they had been seriously misled by the authorities about BSE, and had been given spurious reassurances, they just weren't persuaded by official and corporate reassurances about GM foods.

If the products are present, they have to be labelled, and the retailers know that consumers will not be prepared to buy them, so they don't stock them. There's hardly any GM food sold in Europe, but it's not just about labelling. I am not alone in having published critical analyses of the ways in which the European Food Safety Authority has assessed the safety of GM crops.They look at too few possible kinds of harm, and require too few studies, and interpret them too generously.

Leafbox:

What are some of the harms and studies that they're not engaging in or studying?

Professor Millstone:

The most widely used herbicide in the world, and in the US, and in Europe is glyphosate. Glyphosate is a very powerful herbicide. It will kill almost all green plants, but plants can be genetically modified so that they can tolerate glyphosate. Glyphosate is often sold under the brand name Roundup and so soybeans that are tolerant of Roundup are called Roundup Ready soybeans.  A lot of crops have been genetically modified to make them tolerate glyphosate. 

The tests that were required and conducted  on the GM herbicide tolerant beans, were conducted using on modified beans that had not been sprayed with glyphosate. The companies and officials like to assume that the combination of Roundup Ready soybeans sprayed with glyphosate is only equal to, cannot be any worse than, the possible risks of the beans on their own and the herbicide on its own. But, that's not an empirical finding; it is an optimistic hypothesis and corporate wishful thinking.   But it is a hypothesis that deserves to be tested; but those tests are not officially required, so the companies don’t conduct such tests.  The only people who have tried to do tests of that sort have been critics of the GM industry. They've produced evidence suggesting that the crop treated with the herbicide is more harmful to laboratory animals than either the crop or the herbicide on their own, or even the sum of the two. But those findings have been trashed as unreliable because there were imperfections in those studies. But of course, they are imperfections in all studies.  The corporations and the officials conveniently don’t mention, ie ignore, the shortcomings of the studies that provided reassuring results. 

Part of my general critique of the ways in which regulatory institutions behave, when that have been captured by corporate interests, is that when they have studies that don't suggest any harm, those studies are treated as unproblematically reliable. They are interpreted as proving  safety. But if a study does indicate harm, they think of all kinds of reasons to discount that evidence. "Oh, it's only in rats. Rats are different than people." Or the circumstances of those experiments do not properly match real peoples’ lives. We can't treat those as reliable.

The term I've come to use for the way in which,  scientists who are paid consultants to the companies whose product they're judging, often evaluate evidence is that they are ‘consistently inconsistent’. They are very generous to very weak studies that failed to find evidence of harm, but savagely critical of any study that suggests possible harm, and endlessly come up with excuses for discounting evidence of harm. Often the reasons that they give for discounting the studies suggesting harm, if they were consistently applied to the studies that didn’t suggest harm, those studies would also be rejected. The sample was too small. The dose was unrealistic. All those kinds of excuses are given.

I'm not a great fan of animal tests, but if we're going to do animal tests and use them as a basis for deciding what to permit and what to forbid and what to restrict, then we ought to ensure that the evidence is interpreted in a genuinely consistent way. There's no good saying, "Animal studies are reliable when they give us the answer we want, and unreliable when giving the answer we don't want." That's not proper science. That is, as I said, not evidence-based policy, but policy-based evidence selection, usually selected by people with vested interests in the outcome.

Leafbox:

What is the role of funding in your research and other researchers? Is it difficult to get grants in the UK or what is the grant process? I'm sure Monsanto pays all the... It's the same as Pfizer or whatnot or SSRIs. I'm just curious.

Professor Millstone:

If you are prepared to work with industry, doing the kinds of work that they want to do, they will happily fund you. But if you want to do anything remotely critical, you can whistle for it, because you're not going to get a cent. But it's also the same with governments. In this country, it started when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, the government policy was: "Before scientists come running to government asking for research funds, they should get into bed with industry and work with them and let industry fund the studies." But industry is never going to fund a study that might suggest its products are unsafe, but the government's not doing it either.

The governments say: "The companies have vested interest in getting their product on the market, so they should pay for the studies." I agree that they should pay for the studies, but I don't agree that they should design them, and conduct them, or have control of the evidence and the interpretation of the evidence. The incentives for industry to make sure that if you're going to do studies with rats or mice, they're not going to choose the most sensitive variety of the most sensitive species. They'll typically choose the less sensitive species and they'll try and use the lowest doses for the test as possible, and have the studies last for as short a time as possible, and examine as few aspects of the animals' health as possible.

Leafbox:

What are some of your incentive solutions? Would it be increasing liability?

Professor Millstone:

Well, you could do that; that's probably important. But the trouble is with limited liability companies, if their back’s are to the wall, they go bankrupt rather than pay out. If you're going to have strict liabilities, the corporations must be insured to cover their liabilities. Ultimately, if there's going to be a pay-out for the harm,  that could come from the insurance company, but I don't think that's the way to do it.

Instead, governments should be advised by independent scientists, scientists independent of both the companies, the industry. Government ministers or political heads of departments should take responsibility for deciding, after being advised by the scientists and other interested parties, what kinds of studies are necessary and sufficient, and then they should calculate the cost of doing the experiments. If the company wants its product tested so that they can use the results to get the product onto the market, then the company should pay for the tests. But the studies should be conducted by independent laboratories, and independent experts, but not by the company. The independent expert advisors should be responsible for ensuring that all the evidence enters the public domain and that the results are interpreted in a consistent way that serves the interest of protecting public health rather than helping the commercial interests of companies.

Leafbox:

Maybe we can shift to Brexit and the new…

Professor Millstone:

Yes.

Leafbox:

I'm curious if you've had any effect or suggestion on the policymaking of the new division between the EU and the UK.

Professor Millstone:

There were a few of us arguing, before the Brexit referendum took place, that Brexit would represent a serious threat to UK food security. But once the referendum result emerged, then public and media interest in our arguments grew. My colleagues and I argued that Brexit represented a serious threat to food security in the UK in the following ways. I understand a secure food system to be one that provides sufficient food, food that is produced and consumed in a sustainable way, food that is safe, both in terms of bacterial food poisoning and toxicological food poisoning. It should be nutritious, so not too much fat and sugar, and lots of vitamins and minerals, and fibre, and so on. And it also should be affordable, accessible, and affordable.

There are at least those five key aspects of food security. My colleagues and I argued that Brexit threatened UK food security in all those five respects. I'm prepared to say to a US audience that one of our concerns was that food products that can lawfully be produced and sold in the USA, that are not considered acceptably safe in the UK and Europe could end up coming into the UK if there was the free trade deal between the UK and the USA, which was acceptable to the US Congress.

In particular, can I pick on two aspects of the US food supply where I think it is far from acceptably safe?

Leafbox:

Of course, yes.

Professor Millstone:

One is acute food poisoning, which is caused by bacteria, with things like salmonella, listeria and botulism. In the USA, especially in very large intensive livestock units, the density of animals is so high that the animals leave the farm and head to the slaughterhouse contaminated with harmful bacteria. Now, one of the rules in Europe, which I think is entirely sensible, applies to poultry sheds. When a consignment of birds leaves a poultry shed and goes to the slaughterhouse, the law in Europe requires that the poultry sheds are cleaned out and disinfected.

The same rule does not apply in the USA. You can bring in fresh chicks into a highly contaminated, polluted poultry shed, which just recycles the bacteria into the next consignment, and subsequent consignments of animals. So, conditions of hygiene of livestock in the USA are much poorer than those in Europe, and the stocking densities are far higher. The scale of your slaughterhouse and meat packing plants is so huge that if you get some infected material, say, in the wash or the blades that cut the animals, the pathogens can just be spread from carcass to carcass. So, they're very high levels of bacterial contamination of meat in the USA, and US law permits types of washing of carcasses and joints of meat with what are called ‘pathogen reduction treatment’s, which are essentially supposed to be disinfectants. There's a variety of chemical mixes used. One of the most common is chlorinated water,  or chlorine gas dissolved in water.

Leafbox:

But that just masks the pathogen instead of actually eliminating it.

Professor Millstone:

A really interesting study emerged from some scientists in the city of Southampton a few years ago. Treatment with these chemical washes did not kill the bacteria and barely slowed them down. What they do is block the standard test by which the presence of bacteria can routinely be detected. So, the bacteria remain present, but appear absent in the approved test. As a consequence of which, I regret to say, the rate of microbiological food poisoning in the USA is very substantially greater than it is in the UK or continental Europe.

And one of the arguments over Brexit was that we, in the UK, don't want what came to be called ‘chlorine-washed’ chicken. The issue of chlorine-washed chicken was one that my colleagues and I put on the agenda in the UK, and that became shorthand for much of what we thought was unacceptable about the likely impact of Brexit on UK food safety. Can I give you just one more example?

Leafbox:

Yeah, it's fascinating.

Professor Millstone:

In the USA and some other countries, but not in Europe or the UK, it is lawful to administer synthetic hormone pellets under the skin of cattle. As those synthetic hormones dissolve into the animal's tissue, those hormones function as growth promoters, which means that the animals reach their target slaughter weight slightly more quickly and on slightly less food than would otherwise be required. It promotes in particularly muscle growth especially in cattle. They're very widely used in the USA and in some other countries like South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and Australia, but they're not lawful in Europe. I think they're good reasons why they're not lawful in The EU. To the extent that the US authorities have assessed the risks of eating meat from cattle treated with these hormones, the US assessment, in effect at best, only assessed the risks to average healthy adults.

Leafbox:

Nothing with children.

Professor Millstone:

But not everyone's average. Not everyone's healthy, and not everyone's an adult. It didn't include babies, infants, prepubescent adolescents, the elderly, the immunologically compromised, people on chemotherapy, and several other groups. The European expert panel, in their risk assessment, said there was clear evidence that one of these hormones is actively harmful because it can cause cancer. As for the others, there isn't sufficient evidence that they are safe across these diverse groups and therefore hormone growth promoters are not permitted.

That is another respect in which I would maintain that European, in this case, beef is significantly safer than US beef. No doubt the US beef industry and its representatives would contest that claim, but I have published detailed scientific evidence in support of this analysis, as indeed has the European Scientific Committee for Veterinary Medicinal Products. So  there are other reasons why Brexit could represent a downward slope of declining food standards. 

Leafbox:

Do you have any optimism? In the sense that Brexit, in theory, it could be even more stringent and more…

Professor Millstone:

Oh, it could. I hope I don't shock you, but you might be surprised to learn that politicians aren't always truthful, and in the run-up to the Brexit vote, ministers are saying, "Oh, yes, when we are independent, we can raise our standards," 

But the moment Britain left, they set about trying to lower standards. Let me give you a particular concrete example. Last calendar year, so what was that... 2022,  the UK had very briefly for, what was it, about 10 weeks or so, a government led by hopelessly incompetent prime minister called Liz Truss who…

Leafbox:

In one of 10.

Professor Millstone:

She trashed the British economy, costing the government about 80 billion pounds by adopting unfunded tax cuts. Her minister of industry introduced a Bill called the retained EU Law Bill, which states that all the regulations and protections, the rules and regulations that prevail in the UK by virtue of the UK’s prior membership of the EU will cease to apply on the 31st of December 2023, unless the ministry responsible drafts and prepares replacement legislation and gets it through all the required stages in parliament.

It was touted as providing a bonfire of red tape, they said: ‘we're going to free British entrepreneurs from the dead hand of European regulation. But that, it's like saying, from the 1st of January next year, you'll be able to sell any old crap without any testing, any knowledge, any labeling, or anything. It would represent a complete catastrophe, not just for food standards but also for environmental standards and vehicle safety standards, consumer product safety standards, and investor protections and employment protection. The whole gamut of regulation.

It has the makings of a total catastrophe. We're in April. So it is what, eight and a half months remaining of this year. And there was no conceivable way in which the British Parliament could pass the requisite legislation in the remaining eight and a half months.

Levels of tension in this country are rising over that point. Civil servants expect that at the last minute, the government will back away from that utterly foolish piece of legislation. [On May 11th 2023 the UK government announced that it plans to ‘amend the draft legislation’.] So if we are looking for chin of optimism from Brexit, it might be that this particular example of political folly might bite the dust.

Leafbox:

Professor, returning to maybe your personal... When I spoke to all the toxicologists, that all the research almost makes them not paranoid, but I'm always curious, how do you live your daily life? What do you eat? How do you eat?

Professor Millstone:

Well, I don't eat junk food. I will sometimes flippantly say I live high up the ‘Muesli Scale’. I'm not a vegetarian, but I eat a lot of vegetables and salads. I do eat meat sometimes, but in relatively small quantities. I very rarely eat highly processed foods except when I out somewhere and I can't get hold of the kind of food I really want to eat. I prepare my food routinely from raw ingredients and prepare it using rapid cooking methods. I don't go for complicated, elaborate recipes that take hours and hours. But I think I do have quite a healthy diet.

Leafbox:

Do you make efforts to know your suppliers or try to understand... Here in Hawaii, we have local butchers who we can know where our fish come from and whatnot. I'm just curious of what the culture is like evolving.

Professor Millstone:

That's not so easy in the UIK. There are other countries in Europe where that is much easier, where there's much more concern about locality and provenance of supplies. But I do go to shops that I know and trust and I avoid those I think are unreliable and unsafe. I go for products that I deem acceptably safe and avoid the ones that I don't think are acceptably safe. I do read labels and I suppose I am quite well-informed about what I eat, about the characteristics of the food products available.

But I take off of the healthy diet.

Leafbox:

One of the things that struck me so interesting about your work is that... Can we speak about Iran just for a minute?  I know nothing about Iran, and I'm just curious what your experience is there.

Professor Millstone:

I have never visited Iran, but I have supervised a very able Iranian doctoral student. He showed up with an initial idea, which I thought wasn't entirely sensible and would be very difficult to research. He said, well, if I'm not going to do that, what else shall I do? I had heard that there were some discussions about the introduction of There was a quite heated policy controversy in Iran about it. The contending parties to that dispute were not so much public campaigners, but different ministries with different responsibilities and conflicting agendas. He decided the research question he wanted to pursue was: how were policies over GM foods decided? How were the policy decisions made in Iran, given that there was a heated and contested debate within the Iranian government? The whole process had gone on behind closed doors, and there was no accountability. So: what really He's a very bright man, a very able researcher who was incredibly fortunate because he discovered talking to some officials in the Iranian government that there had been a lengthy series of meetings between representatives of the different ministry, the ministries of Agriculture, of Industry, of Health, and of the Environment, in which policy on GM foods was being negotiated.’

Audio recordings of all of those discussions had been taken and retained and they were made available to him. He could document in exquisite detail the negotiating process whereby the decisions were made.  Here's a quiz question for you, Robert. We concluded in the end that Iranian policy on GM foods ended up closely resembling the policy of another country. Would you care to guess which country that might be?

Leafbox:

Isn't it the US?

Professor Millstone:

It is. I think there's a definite irony in that, given the political friction between Iran and the USA.   I also found something similar in China where I have been for research myself. Both Iran and China think of GM foods from US companies as  the ‘spawn of the devil’ that they would never allow into their country, but they assume that homemade GM foods are bound to be safe. The Chinese loathe Monsanto, but they like their own GM crops. In Iran, some Iranian plant geneticists had genetically modified rice. Quite a lot The question was, would the Iranian government permit the cultivation and sale of Iranian genetically modified rice? And if so, under what conditions? There was an extraordinarily complicated negotiating process that went on amongst the Iranian ministries, and opinions swayed back and forth. But in the end it was so interesting because  the scientists who were involved in developing the product, gaining enormous influence within the Iranian parliament.  The parliament decided that this decision should be made by the Department of Agriculture and not by either the Department of Environment or the Department of Health. The introduction of the GM rice was opposed, if I recall correctly, both by the Environment Department and the Health Department, but supported by the Agriculture Department.

Eventually, the Agriculture Department accepted the reassuring narrative provided by the scientists who developed the rice,  and the government decided to approve it. But, it's been a 12 years since my student completed his doctorate, and we haven't been in touch for a very long time, so I am not up-to-date with what may have happened since then.

Leafbox:

Are there any other doctoral, I think you're retired now, but you're still advising other doctoral students. Are there any interest-

Professor Millstone:

Just one.

Leafbox:

And any research of particular interest that you'd like to share?

Professor Millstone:

She is studying the history of the debate about glyphosate.

Leafbox:

Any conclusions yet? Or just That's a very...

Professor Millstone:

No, she's at an early stage. She doesn't have findings yet.

Leafbox:

And then one of my last questions is, I think Mexico and Russia, they're very anti-GMO, correct? Is that because they're protecting their own agricultural industry, or is it a biosafety issue? I'm just curious. I think in Mexico, the case is-

Professor Millstone:

I think in Mexico, maize (which in the USA is called ‘corn’) is the staple grain in Mexican diets. And the Mexicans, especially Mexican subsistence farmers, are highly reliant on their traditional varieties.  In 2001, evidence emerged that non-GM corn being grown in Mexico, had already been contaminated with genes from American GM corn. That shocked and appalled both Mexican citizens and Mexican authorities. That had a big influence on policy in Mexico, and still does to this day. But as for Russia, I'm sorry, I have no knowledge of what's been going on in Russia. I've never studied it. I don't speak the language, I can't read the documents. I don't have any sources there. So I'm ignorant in that respect.

Leafbox:

And then one of my last questions, professor, is I think I saw a photo with you with a pin that said, question authority. I like that. I just wanted to... Do you have anything to share about that, or what's your philosophy regarding question authority?

Professor Millstone:

I think that was a slogan from some Rastafarians. I think it's sound advice. Here's what I think of it anyway, as an interesting irony. One of the first scientific institutions ever created was the Royal Society of London, which was one of the first scientific bodies for the  advancement and dissemination of scientific knowledge. It has a motto, which is in Latin. But the English translation of the motto is, ‘take nobody's word for it’.   It is an injunction for each person to take responsibility for their own judgments. Look independently at the evidence. Don't believe something just because somebody else told you so. For me, one of the ironies to my certain knowledge, is that all too often, they act in violation of their own motto. They don't follow their own motto.

I remember one person in particular, I asked, "Have you read a particular criticism of some of your ideas?" And he said, "Oh, one of my students told me there's nothing in it worth worrying about. So I haven't looked at it." I thought, but I didn't say, but you are a member of the Royal Society, you are not supposed to take anyone else's word for it!.

Not only do I question authority, but I question all kinds of allegations, whether people are in positions of authority or not, whether that's about the risks from COVID or climate change or all kinds of things. There is far too much ignorance and prejudiced masquerading as if reliable knowledge. I've chosen to take my own path, and I try very hard not to pronounce on issues and until I think I know what I'm talking about.

Leafbox:

Great. Well-

Professor Millstone:

I question authority or I question what other people say whether they're an authority or not. But let me just finish by saying that often those in authority have most to hide.

Leafbox:

Yeah, and that takes you back to your first meeting with those people at that table.

Professor Millstone:

It does. Yes.

Leafbox:

Well, professor, I really appreciate your time.

Professor Millstone:

Okay.

Leafbox:

How can people get hold of you if they have further questions. I know you're retired and probably don't want more, but...

Professor Millstone:

Well, I have an email addressed at the University of Sussex, but to be entirely frank, I struggled to cope with the rate at which emails come in as it is. But I do try and eventually get round to responding to people, but I don't always manage to do so promptly.

Leafbox:

Great. Well, I appreciate responding to mine, professor. Thank you so much. It's late.

Professor Millstone:

Okay.

0 Comments
Leafbox
Leafbox Podcast
Interviews with Creatives, Artists, Retailers, Entrepreneurs....
--
Full transcripts @ leafbox.com
Twitter: @leafbox