The French philosopher Henri Poincaré once observed that science is built from facts just as a house is built of stones - but he went on to note that an accumulation of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house.
British consumers are currently faced with several towering heaps of stones, and they might do well to look at who is doing the piling. We have the Natural Hydration Council (NHC), for example, which is very clear on the benefits of drinking water. It especially stresses the benefits of consuming 2.9l (men) or 2.2l of fluid (women) a day and is keen to point out the ‘undisputed' health benefits of water over other beverages.
This advice also fits beautifully into the long-term strategies of bottled-water companies, who are keen to maintain both the heavy consumption of water and its perception as a superior drink to juice-based competitors. It is handy, as the NHC's research is funded by bottled-water brand owners Danone, Nestlé and Highland Spring.
Another significant pile of stones sprung up last week when the Guild for Fine Food launched a broadside against private labels. According to the body's chairman, Bob Ferrand, ‘almost all [supermarket] foods, including super-premium ranges, are designed to hit a price point, not a quality standard'. His advice to consumers was to ignore private labels and buy foods that have been subjected to ‘independent scrutiny'. This strong and seemingly independent advice came from an organisation set up in 1995 to support independent food retailers and suppliers.
I am sure that Ferrand's criticism of private labels is motivated solely by a deep-felt concern for British consumers. A more cynical columnist, however, might suggest that such an attack would benefit his paying members as well as the Guild itself, which promotes its ‘Great Taste Awards' as an alternative benchmark of quality.
The biggest pile of stones of all was built by the Food Standards Authority (FSA), which last week officially declared that there was ‘no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food'. One might infer from the independent status of the FSA and its government funding that this was an authoritative and objective conclusion. Indeed, the body's chairman strongly emphasised the ‘scientifically rigorous and independent' process by which its report was produced.
Scientific it might have been, but rigorous it was not. Despite the conclusive nature of the FSA's statement on health benefits, the research focused solely on nutritional benefits, which even organic producers usually do not contest. The more significant benefits of organic food, such as those related to avoiding the long-term consumption of pesticides, were conveniently ignored by the FSA.
It strikes me that even the FSA has some reputational skin in the game. Having consistently defended pesticides in previous reports, it omitted their potential impact on health from its research, even though several recent studies, including one by the European Commission, have reported links to cancer, male infertility and nervous-system disorders as a result of consuming pesticide-laden food.
Given the towering piles of rocks that confront the British consumer, we should give thanks for something that most marketers usually bemoan - the intransigent nature of consumer decision-making. Despite volumes of ‘scientific evidence', the British shopper continues to take objective advice with a healthy pinch of salt.
Mark Ritson, PPA columnist of the year (business media), is an associate professor of marketing and consultant to some of the world's biggest brands
30 seconds on the FSA and organic food
- The FSA's report purported to analyse all studies of organic-food benefits published in the past 50 years.
- The Belfast Telegraph reports that Rex Humphries, of United Irish Organics in Northern Ireland, said the report ‘didn't do anything new or meaningful', adding, ‘It's not the whole truth, not balanced and is not taking into consideration new work and work that is ongoing.'
- The FSA said: ‘Pesticides were specifically excluded from the scope of this work. This is because our position on the safety of pesticides is clear: they are rigorously assessed and their residues are closely monitored'.
- The Soil Association, however, contended that consumers should be worried that the average industrially-produced apple may have been sprayed up to 16 times with 30 different chemicals.
- Tim Smith, the FSA's chief executive, said its study was not intended to deter consumers from eating organic food, but to encourage them to eat a healthy and balanced diet.