Campbell’s Soup and the Ethics of Food Labeling

I have not blogged in some time, but I am back and here to stay. I hope to make weekly contributions here every Sunday, so stay on the edge of your seat!!!!

If you have read some of my other posts, you will know that I am not a huge fan of labeling foods which contain genetically engineered ingredients. In part because those labels are not that informative, but also because creating regulations for labeling, especially for something which is not informative, is a waste of tax payers money. Labeling itself is fine, such as including the names of allergens (milk, soy, wheat, etc.), or ingredients which could potentially harm a sub set of the population (such as phenylalanine), but labeling genetically engineered food is simply a bad idea.

The recent turn in this debate is a choice by Campbell’s Soup to include voluntary labels on their soup cans. These labels announce to the public that their soup indeed contains genetically engineered food, and they provide a link to an explanation of why it is safe to eat. Not only are they volunteering to do this, but they are also backing federal regulations, particularly in the United States, for all companies to submit to a federal standard of labeling genetically engineered products. I think this is a horrible idea, but I realize that the issue is complicated.

What Does a Label Mean?

Before I go into detail about why I think Campbell’s Soup is making a mistake, I am going to include a brief overview as to why labeling genetically engineered foods is pointless and problematic.

When a consumable product is being made, there are several stages of development all of which contain vast amounts of information. Obviously, all of this information is not something a consumer needs to know, such as the name of the person who unloaded the bananas off the truck at the grocery store from which you purchased them. Not only is this information not necessary to have, but labeling all of it would take up an inordinate amount of space. Also, this amount of information would create an informational overload, such that the information, in principle, would be unusable by the average consumer. What consumers should want is only that information which is relevant to have.

The problem, of course, is what information is it relevant for the consumer to have? There is going to be some disagreement here, given that there are a diverse range of needs, and beliefs about those needs, in the population at large.However, the consensus seems to be that we label foods based on the possible effects these products might have on those who consume them, and we only label those foods at the level which is useful. For example, labeling bananas with every chemical compound that make up a banana is not useful if the banana itself is safe to eat.

We have decided, as a society, to label the 8 ingredients which account for 90% of all food allergies, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy. We label these ingredients even when they are not necessarily in the product, (the ‘may contain’ label on food products is to alert the consumer that the product was either made in the same facility as, or made with the same equipment as, the allergen in question). We also label the basic nutritional facts, which are arguably necessary for maintaining adequate health (such as the quantity of sugar). Lastly, we label the specific ingredients which go into making a product (with some exceptions such as specific flavourings), so that those who have a rare disorder can still make sure that nothing in the food is going to have a negative effect on their health.

What Kind of Information Would Be Contained in a GMO or GE Label?

Labeling something a fruit is not useful to a consumer, since it does not tell you about the specific effects of each individual fruit. Similarly, with a blanket GMO or GE label, the labeling tells you absolutely nothing about what the food is possibly going to do to you. Even if genetically engineered corn caused tumors, which it absolutely does not, blanket labels would cover other fruits and veggies too, such as Bt brinjal, which likely would not have the same effects.

If the end product of a genetically engineered plant was actually harmful, it wouldn’t be the fact that it was genetically altered that would have the effect. After all, it is not likely that genes survive, or have any effect, when they are consumed. What would have the effect is the possible allergens created by the product, and the possible introduction of specific chemical compounds which are detrimental to human health. Of course, not all chemicals are harmful, and it is the dose that matters, but it is possible, though not likely, that engineering a crop could introduce a large quantity of chemical compounds which are indeed detrimental to human health.

The issue, is that these kind of harmful changes would be easily detected, and can be screened before the crops make it to the super market. This problem is also not specific to GE crops, since all foods, regardless of how they are manipulated (natural selection, artificial selection, mutagenesis, etc.), undergo genetic alterations. So again, what information is a GMO or GE label providing? It seems, when it comes to human health, all that needs to be labeled are those foods which have a specific effect on human health, since GMO or GE food labels lack the specificity required, it is not clear how they could be helpful in this regard.

Labeling the Process

The only reasonable position left to adopt is that the process itself is what should be labeled, such that the process has negative environmental consequences. The only problem with this line of argument is that the process isn’t any more worrying, and possibly less worrying, than some of our more frequently used breeding technologies. It is also interesting to consider that there is no ground swell of activism in favour of labeling mutagenic crops. In other words, shouldn’t all food be labeled regarding the processes in which they were made so that every consumer can make an informed environmentally friendly purchase?

If it were that simple those labels would probably already exist. Even organic labels fail to adequately capture the environmentally friendly effects of the products which are special enough to have such a designation. It is possible that different processes, have different effects, in different contexts (and environments). Which means that the label itself does little to inform the consumer about the environmental impact of the product.

Better yet, instead of labeling campaigns, why not advocate for better environment regulation, so that it removes, from the consumer, the choice to buy more damaging products in the first place? Governments already try to regulate pesticide use by what is known as Integrated Pest Management. This is a way of using the right amount of pesticides as to keep pesticide levels in the environment at a sustainable level, while also trying to improve yields and decrease mutation rates in pest species. This is a fine balance that is going to differ for each region, crop and pesticide used. Genetically engineered food helps in this case, since the use of genetically engineered foods has reduced the amount of pesticides needed, thus decreasing negative environmental effects.

If the health and environmental reasons for labeling are both non-existent, then why label? Labeling seems to be a way of manipulating the public, and this manipulation can either have good or bad intentions.

Campbell’s Decision

First, I will start by at least highlighting some good points. The labels direct customers to a website called What Is In My Food. The website does a good job of describing the ingredients in the food, and does so while explaining why they are used. At the bottom of each page the company has an addendum about genetically modified (though I prefer engineered) food, which acknowledges their safety record,

In America, approximately 90% of all canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Farmers have been using these seeds for more than 20 years as they are safe, reduce costs and improve yields.

They then go on to list the ingredients in the particular product which have these specific ingredients. All of which is perfectly reasonable, and I think it is well within the companies power to make such information available to the public.

However, in their press release they also stated:

Campbell is making several key changes to its recipes and outlined plans to increase its organic offerings.

Based on feedback from parents, the company will simplify the recipes of existing condensed soups for kids, removing ingredients such as added MSG and continuing to make the soup with no preservatives, no artificial colors and no artificial flavors. The first updated range of kids soups is expected to hit U.S. shelves in August.

In other words, Campbell’s is not making a science based decision, but a marketing decision. Which is sad, given that they just said that GMO’s are perfectly safe! They are basically saying, even though genetic engineering is safe, we are going to sell our more blatantly anti-scientific customers a highly price gouged, more environmentally damaging product.

Here is where I think the big problem lies, who are Campbell’s trying to accommodate here? All those who could care less what process was used to breed the crops used in Campbell’s canned soup, will continue to eat it and not care. All those who erroneously believe organic is better are still going to perceive Campbell’s as a large evil corporation that is destroying the world and our health. By stating both that GMO’s are safe, while simultaneously increasing organic offerings, is basically Campbell’s Soup attempting to have their cake and eat it too, and I don’t think anyone is going to buy it.

Some think it is better to encourage mandatory labeling than to have governments outright ban genetically engineered food, but I don’t think this is a fair description of what is going on. The activists don’t seem to be pushing for a ban, what they are pushing for is labeling, and they assume that once labeling is in place companies will see customers leave and therefore they will stop using GMO’s in order to keep customers. Some pro-GMO activists think that mandatory labeling will make it blatantly obvious to the public at large that over 80% of the foods they eat contain genetically engineered foods, and thus they will simply accept it as a fact and not care. I would love to see how Campbell’s decision will affect their bottom line, given that only 37% of people, compared to 88% of scientists, think genetically engineered food is safe.

This decision, as any decision made by a large corporation, is a marketing decision, and we will have to wait and see whether it pays off. Many companies see labeling as inevitable and are worried that it is going to be mandated state by state. A federal standard would be far more cost effective.

The move to organic foods is another indication that this decision is not in the worlds favour, but in the companies, since it seems to be an indication not of sound science, but of public taste. As this Huff Po article highlights

Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison has been outspoken about the need for big food makers to adapt to changing tastes. The company, based in Camden, N.J., has been diversifying its packaged food lineup with offerings that are seen as fresher.

Being seen as fresh, perceived as healthy, branded as environmentally friendly etc. etc. etc. The consumer is left more confused. If the food is safe, why the shift in tastes? Why remove MSG if it is safe? Why remove artificial flavours if they are safe? Why remove preservatives if they are safe? BECAUSE THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH FOOD SAFETY.

What About Choice?

Choice is overrated, just ask psychologist Barry Schwartz. I don’t think choice is what is needed here; the outcomes, health and environmental safety, are probably far too serious to be left to the whims of consumer choice. If genetic engineering is bad, it shouldn’t be used. The decision should not be made by consumers, but by an appropriate regulatory body which has the requisite knowledge base to make appropriate decisions regarding food. Which is the ironic thing about this whole issue, most people against GMO’s don’t think the government, or the scientists, have our best interests in mind. This is why they harass public scientists, and espouse libertarian ideals.

We don’t need more choice, what we need is proper, scientifically informed, regulation. Food safety should not be left in the hands of consumers, given that health and environmental safety are essentials to living a good life. Companies, understandably, will not rally behind increased government regulations to maintain food standards, but we have the institutions already in place to make those standards better. The fight for labeling, and the manipulation of labels by companies, is only going to confuse the public more on this very important issue. It is time to stand up for science.


GMO Labeling is Anti-Scientific

No one wants their views to be labeled as anti-scientific. That is why those who hold anti-scientific view points try so hard to shield themselves from this accusation. A good example of this is David Gorski’s long running blog series about the anti-vaccine movements consistent denial that they are, in fact, anti-vaccine. In this post I will address a similar claim made by those who are critical of the scientific consensus surrounding genetically engineered foods, focusing on an article written by philosopher Roberta Millstein, titled, “GMOs? Not So Fast”. In this article, she argues that those who are critical of GMOs are not necessarily anti-science, and that the problem instead involves values. Although she holds more reasonable positions than some of her more flagrant anti-science compatriots (I’m looking at you Natural News), her position still should be characterized as anti-scientific.

Framing the Debate

Millstein begins her article by framing the GMO debate in the context of labeling. Proponents of labeling argue that the consumer has a right-to-know how their food is made. In contrast, she claims that many scientists are against labeling because it is anti-scientific. Right from the start, I think this is a straw-man of the actual views held by scientists who are against labeling, although this will become more clear when we reach the core of her argument.

Millstein’s description of what GMOs are, is fairly accurate. What has come to be called Genetically Modified Organisms, is a process in which a gene is transferred from one individual or species into another. That gene is then expressed in the newly created plant, leading to the various desired traits that are currently used by biotechnologists. Millstein is right to point out that most of the crops you will find in the market that are genetically modified have been engineered in various ways to combat pests, whether they be other plants or insects. However, when she frames why these traits have been selected, she states, “Biotech companies claim that modifications like these will increase crop yields, save farmers time and money, and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.” Notice the use of Biotech companies, as opposed to stating that these positions are advocated by scientists. Both independent scientists and Biotech companies think this technology is effective at increasing yields, saving money and lowering the use of pesticides, but by framing it in the context of Biotech companies Millstein is shaping the narrative, whether intentionally or not.

She also briefly touches upon other types of GMO crops, such as biofortified vitamin A rice (golden rice), as well as disease resistant papayas and oranges. All of which are the products of independent groups. In the case of golden rice it is given away for free. None of these facts were addressed by Millstein, and they reflect her anti-corporate bias when assessing the pros and cons of GMOs. Being against corporate involvement with biotechnology says little about the actual effects of biotechnology in general, yet that seems to be the main focus of those who claim to be critical of GMOs. This corporate aspect of biotechnology continues to pop up through out her paper, and will be further addressed through out my criticism.

Science is Full of Values

The main bulk of Millstein’s paper is a list of six problems with the claim that GMO critics are anti-scientific. The first three points are basically the same, that science is value laden. This itself is not controversial, especially given the history of the philosophy of science during the 20th century. This means, according to Millstein, that critics of GMOs might not be necessarily criticizing data, but instead are criticizing certain values in relation to GMOs, such as a consumers right-to-know. Science can tell us what is in something, and can give us reasonable evidence of the safety of something, but cannot tell us what our rights are. I agree with this, GMO science is not value free, but is motivated by the values of safety, for the environment and health, and for economics, which could potentially benefit both farmers and large corporations.

This is why I think her view is a straw-man, because it unfairly portrays the pro-GMO scientist as someone who disregards other peoples values. Health, the environment, and probably certain aspects of economic growth, would be values shared by both sides of the GMO debate. The problem is that both sides disagree about the science, which is why the anti-science claim is relevant and not being misapplied. Millstein also fails to give evidence or examples of this phenomenon, which is interesting, considering it is the main thesis of her article.

Why Anti-GMO is Anti-Science

The last three problems listed by Millstein, are the exact reasons why those critical of GMOs are, in fact, anti-science. Problem number four states, “There really is something biologically new about GMOs”. She points out, that those who are pro-GMO claim that “farmers have been genetically modifying foods for centuries”, and she reasonably points out that this is misleading. However, in describing modern agricultural practices, Millstein only mentions selective breeding and hybridization, which is also misleading since it leaves out the conventionally used process of mutagenesis. She also mentioned that gene transfer technology can take genes from different species (say from a pig to an orange), which is also true, but misleading. Nature does not discriminate based on where the genes come from. In fact, we share various genes between a large spectrum of species, and everything seems to be working out just fine. The worry of this kind of gene transfer, according to Millstein, is that it will result in an increase of unintended genetic effects, and she cites a 2004 National Research Council book on assessing the unintended effects of genetically engineered food to support this claim.

I don’t know why Millstein neglected to talk about mutagenesis, but it’s omission is interesting considering the argument she is making. There is no movement to label food produced by mutagenesis, at least not one that has the same kind of national support as GMO labeling (I certainly haven’t heard of one). Yet the process of mutagenesis, which haphazardly creates new genetic strains by exposing plants to radiation should be far more concerning than GMOs. At least with GMOs, we are specifically selecting traits, which then we can monitor for their effects. With food produced through plants exposed to mutagenesis, no testing is necessary before the product hits the shelf.

Now, I am not worried about plants being produced through mutagenesis, but according to the science that Millstein herself provides, the 2004 book by the National Research Council, mutagenesis is far worse when it comes to unintended genetic effects. So, given that Millstein thinks GMOs are inherently risky, due to their unintended effects, why is there a lack of condemnation of mutagenesis? Whether in her paper or in the wider public? We have been using mutagenesis for much longer (since the 1920’s), so if there were negative effects due to this process I imagine they would have surfaced already. And considering that mutagenesis is inherently more risky than GMO breeding, by Millstein’s own arguments, what does that say about the scientific literacy of those who still claim we should be concerned about one and not the other?

Another omission by Millstein is that, contrary to those against GMOs, gene transfer does, in fact, readily occur in nature. With no intervention by humans at all, gene transfer occurs between species, usually carried out by viruses or bacterium. Scientists are essentially doing the same thing with GMOs, which is why they view the procedure as relatively safe. The fact that genes are jumping species all through out nature has not led to all the health or environmental catastrophes predicted by the anti-GMO movement. So why assume that now that we are artificially doing it, things will be much worse?

To her credit, Millstein does point out that a lot of anti-GMO activists are wrong to be against GMOs because they are “unnatural”, but she still thinks that the process of gene transfer gives us reason for concern. In the same 2004 book cited earlier by Millstein, bacterial gene transfer is listed just below artificial gene transfer, and both are listed below mutagenesis. So, no, there is nothing really biologically “new” about GMOs, and no reason to fear it above and beyond the conventional processes we already use.

The Plague of Conspiratorial Ideation

Problem five proclaims that safety data is not as good as those, who are pro-GMO, claim it to be. Most of Millstein’s argument is to portray the government regulatory bodies in charge of food safety as being inept or corrupt. It is true that there is no rule mandating specific testing for GMOs, yet no GMO has been approved by the FDA without a significant amount of testing. This also paints the research with a narrow brush, since several of these studies have been done at reputable institutions with independent scientists. You can always claim that not enough time has passed, or more research is needed, but there is no evidence to suspect major health complications, and a lot of evidence suggesting there has been none so far.

Shill and conspiracy claims are leveled by most anti-science advocates, and Millstein’s argument tends in this direction, while not overtly stating it. She instead tries to paint a picture of all the research being highly disputed and weak at best, or lacking oversight, which allows for nefarious corporate meddling. But, if the data were that weak, how does it explain the scientific consensus over the safety of GMO crops? Does Millstein have information that the relevant scientists don’t? Are they too corrupted to see their own flawed literature, requiring outside help from anti-GMO crusaders?

I often find it sad, and slightly ironic, that those who continuously preach in favour of the scientific consensus over antropogenic global warming fail to appreciate the consensus formed around the safety of GMO crops. Somehow Monsanto succeeded at corrupting academia when it comes to agricultural science, yet poor Exxon couldn’t expend enough funds to warp the morality of those climate scientists! If there is a good reason for why Monsanto succeeded where Exxon failed, I have yet to hear it, and I would bet it doesn’t exist. This failure at bridging the gap between respect for the climate consensus and the scientific consensus supporting GMOs among environmental activists is elegantly explained by ex-anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas, and I highly recommend his speech on the subject.

Millstein argues that those who are anti-GMO should be treated different than those who deny evolution, or reject the science of anthropogenic global warming, because each case is different, and have different reasons for being doubted. However, there is a common thread in all these anti arguments, in that they first try to discredit an entire field in the face of a strong consensus by claiming that the research available is weak, then they cherry pick the field for bad studies, or studies which contradict the consensus. The last move is to claim some sort of large conspiracy involving either a political or corporate force or both!

I see no reason to think that Millstein’s argument is any different on this front. I see the growing consensus between independent and corporate scientists for the safety and efficacy of GMO crops to be quite compelling, but obviously Millstein does not. And beyond slamming my fists against the table and repeating this fact over and over again, I doubt Millstein will be convinced.

Even if we were to dismiss the safety studies, due to possible regulatory incompetence or direct corrupt manipulation, there still has not been one iota of data to suggest that GMOs are harmful. There is also no reason to expect that GMOs are risky for human health, and no mechanism is provided by Millstein or other critics to explain how this harm could occur. Allergens are often raised as the number one concern, but this harm, if it exists, would not be an unknown. When it comes to allergens, what matters is what material gets expressed by the genes. There is nothing inherently risky about eating DNA, your body destroys it when you eat it. However, an allergen is the product of gene expression, and we can detect those in the final product. If, for example, we insert a gene into corn which expresses the same allergen that people react to who have peanut allergies, we would be able to detect this before a crop comes to market. No company will ever make crops that, for example, contain large amounts of cyanide which kill people after consumption. What economic benefit do companies gain when all their customers are dead? These are also problems which could occur during conventional practices such as mutagenesis, and are therefore not specific to GMOs, but even if they were to occur in GMOs there is no reason to think we will miss them in our research. So until a mechanism is proposed which represents a specific threat from GMOs I think it is safe to side with the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe.

Of course nothing can be 100% perfectly safe, as Millstein herself points out, but how high does the threshold need to be, and why should we hold GMOs to a harsher standard? She may argue that she values a higher threshold than the scientists, but she would probably run into some inconsistencies if she maintains this line of argumentation.

Millstein then proceeds to undermine her own argument by proclaiming that not all GMOs are the same, which not only makes labeling difficult (if not impossible), but also would mean that conventional breeding is also risky by the same argument. If we shouldn’t treat all GMOs as one super group, why is there a double standard when it comes to conventionally bred crops? Why is there no call to test every new genetic variation, regardless of how it is created? Millstein gives no answer here, and her silence is telling.

Contexts are Important, but so are Facts

Her final problem with GMO crops involves the environment, and her argument suffers from similar issues found in problem five. Most of the things she finds problematic with GMOs and their environmental impact are not specific to GMOs. Weed and insect resistance to pesticides is an agricultural problem not just a GMO problem. She also raises concern about gene flow, but if the genes in GMO products are not themselves worrisome, why is GMO gene flow worse than non-GMO gene flow?

She also raises concerns about impacted species. Glyphosate, which is used on some GMO crops, kills milkweed which is eaten by monarch butterflies, thus glyphosate use is contributing to the death of monarch butterflies. But again, what does this have to do with GMOs? Agriculture, no matter how it is practiced, impacts the environment. There are also ways to alleviate the monarch issue without discontinuing the use of GMO crops by, for example, providing land devoted to milkweed.

Part of Millstein’s argument seems to be that labeling products as GMO will help people in choosing the foods that don’t have such a negative impact, but if we stop using glyphosate resistant crops, what other crops will we be using? It is not like we would just throw are hands up and cease using pesticides. It is true that there may be negative consequences of pesticide use, but the consequences of not using pesticides, or using older and worse pesticides, needs to be considered as well. But again! What does this have to do with GMOs?

Millstein’s final objection is that even if you say these practices are not inherent to GMOs themselves (which I have been saying in the last three paragraphs), but part of a bad cultural context, such as introducing GMOs, without proper instructions to farmers in India, leading to economic complications. Then refusing to eat GMOs, by properly labeling the food, could improve the situation. She explains that we are stuck with the context we are in, and we have to make real world decisions based on those contexts.

Sure, context matters, but if GMOs are irrelevant, they are… irrelevant. I fail to see how boycotting GMOs in this particular situation would have solved anything, especially since they were not the problem. The problem was human mismanagement. Merely saying, “context matters” gets us nowhere. For starters, I am not yet convinced the context is that dire. Secondly, if one GMO company mismanaged GMO implementation in one region, is that really indicative of a larger problem specifically related to GMOs? But if we should treat this claim seriously, how is labeling going to help? Considering her own position that GMOs should all be treated differently, how does a consumer assess whether or not this particular GMO product is part of the harmful context based on the GMO label? Especially considering that most of the negative implications (if there even are negative implications) of GMOs that she raises are against strains created by agricultural companies? What effect would this have on the papaya, and the various economic communities which depend on its production? And, yet again, what types of practices do we use in their place? It is not clear that there are better alternatives. Those praised by Millstein, such as rice root intensification, have their own problems and have not been widely adopted. So yes, context does matter,  it just doesn’t support the anti-GMO position.

A lot of the studies Millstein refers to have been thoroughly debunked elsewhere. No, neonicotinoids are not as easily problematic for the bees, it is far more complicated. No, 250,000 Indian farmers have not committed suicide because of GMO crops. Like the consistent chants of evolution deniers for missing links, these readily available anti-GMO retorts will constantly rear their ugly heads.They will continue to deny that these studies are discredited and the scientific community will continue to bash its head against the table. CONSENSUS! CONSENSUS!!!!


Which brings us back to the core of her argument, that straw-man from the very beginning, that the pro-GMO scientist is someone who disregards other peoples values. In reality, they are actually against labeling because the information is useless to the consumer, which is a value that happens to be supported by the science. There is no reason to treat all GMOs the same. GMO labeling tells you absolutely nothing about the crops safety or environmental impact, since it only informs you about the process in which it was created and not about why it is specifically harmful. A gene, whether produced artificially through gene transfer or whether produced through plant hybridization or even mutagenesis or any other conventional practice of plant breeding will behave no differently when it is expressed. Mutagenesis, which is the process of breeding biotechnologists will continue to use if GMO sales decrease is arguably a riskier breeding process, even by Millstein’s own standards, yet is not labeled.

Should consumers have a right-to-know? How far should this right extend? Should we begin labeling every naturally occurring chemical compound that occurs in our produce, even if they are viewed negatively by the public? Such as pears, grapes, bananas, cauliflowers, potatoes, cabbages and apples, which contain formaldehyde? Or the fact that coffee is possibly carcinogenic? Is overloading the consumer with information all that psychologically feasible? Do we really want to spend money on regulatory boards for labels which are useless? If labeling creates a market for even worse foods, for the environment and our health, is that not a context worth being worried about? Don’t we all want a healthy more environmentally friendly world to live in?

So, to straw-man scientists as being ignorant of their own value laden conclusions, ignores the fact that the values at issue are shared by both pro-GMO and anti-GMO advocates, the only difference is that the science is on the pro-GMO side, and that is why the anti-GMO position is anti-scientific.

I also recommend Jon Entine’s companion piece to Roberta Millstein’s article found in the same journal, which covers a lot of the issues I raised here and more.

CDC, SIDS, and Anti-Vaccine Stupidity

A new article published by scientists for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been flagged by anti-vaccine advocates for being proof that vaccines are linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). A look at this study, and how it has been misinterpreted, can help underline the need for a better understanding of scientific methodology.

VAERS: A Lesson in Causation

The US Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was set up and managed by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It was a consumer protection initiative designed to detect possible unknown risks of vaccinating. The purpose of VAERS is for individuals to report what they suspect to be adverse effects after receiving vaccination.

Scientists working for the CDC published a paper in an attempt to analyze VAERS reports over a 23-year-period from 1990-2013, specifically for the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. Out of the 29, 747 reports, 896 of them resulted in death. Of the 896 deaths, only 749 of them had certifiable records. Out of the 749 cases of certified deaths only 384 (51%)were caused by SIDS. It is this 51% figure that has been touted by the anti-vaccine movement to be proof that vaccines cause SIDS.

Anti-vaccine website GreenMedInfo, ran with the headline, “CDC’s Own Data: Vaccine-Infant Death Link”. The subtitle of the article makes a stronger declaration about vaccines and SIDS, claiming that the, “link is real”. Sayer Ji, founder of GreenMedInfo, begins his article by pointing out that the CDC and the FDA think vaccines are safe. However, he suggests that these governments did so “a priori”, or in more colloquial terms, before they had any evidence. This new study, he points out, seems to contradict what these government organizations have been saying all along!

In what way does VAERS allow us, or research scientists, to make any conclusions about possible links (real or not) between vaccines and adverse reactions? Links come in degrees. When I eat lunch, the church bell by my house begins to chime twelve times. In some sense, these two activities are linked; noon happens to be when I normally eat lunch. They are not causally linked though, the ringing didn’t cause me to begin eating, I would have ate regardless of the bells ringing. My hunger is causally linked to me eating, but the bells, in some sense, are only superficially related to my eating. This is the scientific issue involving correlation and causation. Research scientists in the field of medicine are interested in correlation, but only as a tool to indicate further research. If I swallow something and then the next day my flu disappears, that is interesting, and may indicate that we should see whether or not it was in fact the thing I swallowed that made my flu disappear. Correlation is a link, an important link, but it isn’t as real a link as a causal link. This is why you always hear scientists and skeptics claiming that correlation does not equal causation. You cannot make claims about a causal relationship based merely on a correlation.

There are several limitations to reporting data bases that make them poor tools for finding “real” or causal links:

1. Unverified Reports: It is not the job of VAERS to follow up on every detail, about every report, not to mention funding issues that would make that impractical. It is also not the job of VAERS to make causal claims, so the fact that these reports are unverified does not matter. The purpose is to indicate possible signals for further investigation, not to make claims about actual relationships between vaccines and adverse effects.

2. Underreporting/Overreporting: VAERS is not actively trying to seek out adverse effects, it is a reporting system. This means that if vaccines were actually causally linked to something, not everyone who had a reaction would report it. This could happen because people don’t know that VAERS exists, or that they didn’t know that what harmed their child was actually related to the vaccine. Furthermore, given the fears raised by the anti-vaccine movement about SIDS or any other illnesses they suspect to be caused by vaccines, could lead to overreporting as people begin to link everything that happens to their children to vaccines.

3. Inconsistent Data Quality: It was found that most of the cases in the VAERS database reporting a relationship between vaccines and autism, were called in not by parents, but by personal-injury lawyers (you can find more information about this in Dr. Paul Offit’s wonderful book, Autism’s False Prophets). It should be obvious that this is a conflict of interest. Lawyers who stand to profit off of a link between vaccines and adverse effects, report these claims to VAERS and then use VAERS in court to claim that vaccines are bad. As Dr. Offit explains, “For the lawyers, VAERS reports hadn’t been a self-fulfilling prophecy; they’d been a self-generated prophecy”.This points to the larger issue that not all reports recorded by VAERS have the quality necessary to be able to make claims about causation.

4. Lack of Controls: In order to make a causal link between something, you need one or more control groups. How can you conclude that there is a link between vaccines and SIDS if you don’t know the rate of SIDS in those who do not vaccinate? Even if you do that comparison, and you find a relationship, it still does not mean that vaccinations caused SIDS (although it may increase the probability). It is possible that those who vaccinate live different lifestyles, and engage in different behaviours, than those who do not vaccinate. More work needs to be done to rule out other possible confounding variables.

Out of all of these possible limitations, the only one that was raised by Ji in his article was underreporting. Which is convenient, since it is the only limitation which would make the possible link between vaccines and SIDS look worse if true.

Ji finishes his post by claiming that the CDC scientists are “callous” for concluding, “Review of VAERS reports did not identify any new or unexpected safety concerns for Hib vaccines”. Aside from the limitations of VAERS, science is not an isolated process. Several studies have been done on this supposed link between vaccines and SIDS all of which found nothing. Here and here for example. The second study, which was a meta-analysis, found that those who do not vaccinate had a higher incidence of SIDS than those who do vaccinate. This might not have anything to do with the vaccines themselves, but is pretty strong epidemiological evidence that vaccinating your kid actually lowers, rather than increases their risk for SIDS. So, were the CDC scientists really “callous” for their conclusion or is Ji just desperate for any evidence, no matter how weak, to reinforce his ideological position against vaccines?

The Evil CDC

I was in the middle of writing this weeks post on the psychological underpinnings of conspiracy ideation, when I realized it was going to require more research than I had time for this week. So, I opted to write about anti-vaccine stupidity instead (but stay tuned for that piece soon!). In relation to the psychological effects of conspiracy ideation, I find it incredibly interesting that those who accept conspiracy theories against large government agencies, such as the CDC and FDA, will accept data from them so long as it supports their own position. If the CDC is really a corrupt body, which hides the evidence against vaccines, merely so they can earn that vaccine money, all the while allowing other people to suffer, would they really be so stupid to release information that would expose themselves? If the anti-vaccine movement is right, and this conspiracy exists, the CDC would have to be a highly-intelligent, well-orchestrated and highly-monitored group. Which flies in the face of their portrayal by the anti-vaccine movement, as a bunch of bumbling idiots who expose data that vaccines are bad all the while twiddling their thumbs claiming, “Move along! Nothing to see here!”. This is the biggest problem about conspiracy ideation, that all evidence can be filtered and twisted in order to show that the conspiracy is true. No evidence at all is evidence of the conspiracy, and evidence against the conspiracy is actually evidence for it. In other words, you have completely walled yourself off from reality.


Vaccinate your kid already.

Bisphenol A, and Zebrafish: or How to Scare Pregnant Women

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a controversial compound which has led to consumer bans of baby bottles as well as caused concern over canned food. However, government regulators all over the world, continue to state that at normal levels of exposure, BPA is safe. Recently, a study from the University of Calgary has been making the rounds on social media, claiming a link between BPA and hyperactivity disorder. The paper claims that pregnant women should avoid BPA coated register receipts. Is this cause for concern or hype with no substance?

What is Bisphenol A?

BPA is a carbon-based synthetic compound which can be found in canned food, plastics, and receipts. Polycarbonates which contain BPA are preferred due to their lightweight and durability compared to other materials, such as glass. In canned foods, they are used to prevent the food from coming into contact with the metal surface of the can. With any food product, repeated contact with a surface will cause leaching of that material into what you consume. BPA can also be absorbed through the skin from the use of creams and the handling of receipts.

Concern over BPA stems from its ability to mimic the effects of natural estrogen, which led scientists to research the possible effects of BPA on the endocrine system. The first study to show a possible link between BPA and endocrine disorders was completed in 1997, by exposing rats to low doses of BPA. More studies were soon to follow. These research findings alarmed parents and put pressure on governments to determine whether the levels of BPA we are exposed to are harmful.

The Banning of BPA in Baby Bottles

In 2008, The Government of Canada banned the use and sale of BPA in baby bottles given the concern raised by the growing number of animal studies. The specific concern was that babies, which are smaller and less developed, were at a greater risk from BPA than adults. There was no scientific evidence that this was indeed the case, but given pressure from constituents, the government decided to take precautionary measures. The government release explained that, “The scientists concluded in this assessment that bisphenol A exposure to newborns and infants is below levels that cause effects; however, due to the uncertainty raised in some studies relating to the potential effects of low levels of bisphenol A, the Government of Canada is taking action to enhance the protection of infants and young children”.

The problem with precautionary measures such as this, is that bans tend to stigmatize products that are otherwise safe. This has happened in the case of silicone breast implants in the United States, which the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned prematurely in 1992. As documented by Barry Glassner in his book, The Culture of Fear, this ban resulted in a cultural panic and devastating litigation against silicone breast manufacturers. However, health problems were not supported by the epidemiological studies which showed that there was no health difference between women with implants and those without. The same thing occurred in the case of thimerosal containing vaccines. In the book, Autism’s False Prophets, Dr. Paul Offit explains how in 1999, Dr. Neal Halsey, a pediatrician from Johns Hopkins Medical School, pushed to remove thimerosal from vaccines. Dr. Halsey’s concern was over the the fact that thimerosal was an organomercury compound, however, epidemiological studies showed thimerosal to be safe. In his dealings with the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Halsey was able to convince them to suggest delaying the hepatitis B vaccine. This back-and-forth between the CDC and FDA created a confusion that harmed, more than it helped. Not only did it harm those who were unnecessarily exposed to hepatitis B, but instilled distrust when it came to government regulatory action towards vaccines.

Banning BPA by itself is not risk-free. Dr. Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist and managing editor at Science-Based Medicine, worries, “What will take its place, and is that safe? BPA is used because it is cost effective and there are advantages to the durable plastic that is used in many products. What will we lose if we give up this technology?”.

In 2012, the FDA amended its regulations to no longer provide information for the use of BPA in baby bottles. This change was not due to safety concerns with BPA, but that manufactures had stopped on their own accord, the use of polycarbonates in the production of their baby bottles.

What is the Evidence?

Most of the evidence on the health effects of BPA have been done in animal studies or in studies which measure the concentration of BPA in humans. A lot of these studies have been contradictory in their conclusions. Given the short half-life of BPA, it is hard to determine general exposure in humans, therefore, it is hard to do an appropriate epidemiological study of the health effects of BPA.

Animal studies have also been criticized since most expose the animals to BPA in ways that would not reflect normal human exposure. According to Richard M. Sharpe of the University of Edinburgh, approximately 70% of BPA gets inactivated in our digestive system. However, in some studies, animals are injected with BPA, exposing them to higher doses than would be consumed through our canned foods and water bottles. Animal models, though scientifically useful, should not be taken too literally. After all, human beings are not mice. The fact that BPA was found to have health effects in mice, can be a good reason to do further epidemiological research, but one should always have caution before extrapolating too much from these studies.

As it stands right now, the risks are still theoretical. What that means is that BPA is likely to have an endocrine effect, but that at current exposures we are not at risk. On January 21, 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), re-evaluated the evidence of BPA and concluded that at current levels of exposure to BPA, there were no consumer health risks. In fact, our exposure to BPA is three-to-five times lower than the “tolerable daily intake” (TDI). Infants and toddlers were exposed to more BPA, given their body size, but the exposure was still lower than the TDI for infants and toddlers. This included all forms of exposure, from canned food and water bottles, to receipts and cosmetics. The EFSA conclusion, of the safety of BPA, is in line with the FDA’s own assessment of the evidence.

…Then Came the Zebrafish

In spite of the evidence, many are still afraid of the potential harm from BPA especially when it comes to infants and fetuses. Which is why a recent article titled, “Attention pregnant shoppers: Study says those cash register receipts could harm your unborn child”, found in the health section of the National Post, is particularly frustrating. Given that society is already hyper conscious about what pregnant women do or do not do to their bodies, we don’t need more ways of shaming peoples life choices. This toned up rhetoric does little to inform mothers about the safety of their children and the fault lies not only with the National Post, but also with the researchers.

University of Calgary researchers published a paper called, “Low-dose exposure to bisphenol A replacement bisphenol S induces precocious hypothalamic neurogenesis in embryonic zebrafish”. In this paper they make very stark proclamations involving the use of BPA’s, explaining that their results, “support the removal of all bisphenols from consumer merchandise”. What evidence do they provide to make these claims? The scientists placed zebrafish embryos during their second semester of gestation in a water solution which contained BPA and then watched as they matured. They noticed that the zebrafish embryos in the BPA contaminated water exhibited increased locomotor activity, which they claim represents hyperactivity in human beings.

Not only are zebrafish bad models for human related disease, but human fetuses do not gestate in pools of water. It is not likely that exposure to BPA in the womb would be analogous to the types of exposure received by zebrafish embryos. So why raise concern about receipts specifically? The scientists claim, that since the BPA exposure of the zebrafish embryos was lower than the TDI of infants and toddlers, that this represents a concern for even the small dose of BPA we absorb through skin contact of receipts coated with BPA. Even the famous Canadian chemist Dr. Joe Schwarcz ain’t buying this one, and frankly neither should you.

So, why all of this rhetoric for a finding which seems to be a stretch at best? I don’t know. One way to increase research funding is to stoke public interest and there is no better way to do that than to scare them. Scientists are also not immune to their own biases, and could be against BPA for more ideological reasons. Reasons which could cloud their research findings, or make them see more than what is given by the data. What the exact motivation was for these scientists is just speculation, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. One study is never enough, and given the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, it is safe to say that at current levels of exposure to BPA our babies will be just fine.


The moral of this story is that both the media and scientists are good at over-hyping research findings, and both can profit off the “sky is falling” narrative. Whether or not BPA is safe, or the extent to which BPA is safe, is a complicated story. We would better serve society if we didn’t scare people by over-selling and over-extrapolating our research findings. Over the years, as the steady grind of research has been developed, there seems to be no evidence that at our current rate of exposure to BPA is doing any harm. One study on zebrafish is probably not going to change all that.

Text Neck: Epidemic or Fear Mongering?

An article from The Washington Post has been making it’s way around social media proclaiming we are suffering from an epidemic of ‘Text Neck’. As the name implies, Text Neck is the idea that due to the wide-spread use of smartphones, which people often tilt their necks to look at, there is a corresponding increase in cervical spine injuries. Are we really in danger of damaging our spines by over-using (or improperly using) our smartphones?

Dr. Hansraj’s 60 Pounds

The only piece of research referenced by The Washington Post article was conducted by Kenneth K. Hansraj in the journal Surgical Technology International. Using a piece of engineering software called COSMOSWorks, Dr. Hansraj argues that as the head tilts forward, the weight experienced by the spine increases, such that at a tilt of 60 degrees, you are adding 60 pounds of weight. As he admits, this calculation does not take into account mitigating factors such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which help to relieve spinal stress.

The 60 pound figure is what caught the media’s attention. Lindsey Bever, of the original Washington Post article writes,

“Can’t grasp the significance of 60 pounds? Imagine carrying an 8-year-old around your neck several hours per day. Smartphone users spend an average of two to four hours per day hunched over, reading e-mails, sending texts or checking social media sites. That’s 700 to 1,400 hours per year people are putting stress on their spines, according to the research.”

The 60 pound figure was emphasized by The Atlantic, Vice, Time, and CBS News, as well as pretty much every other news outlet which covered this story, yet all of them omitted the important qualification that it is not a complete representation of the amount of stress caused by tilting your head down.

Ultimately, the question that should be asked is, to what extent does Dr. Hansraj’s computer model allow us to generalize about spinal health? In the discussion section of the paper, which functions as a way for researchers to link their current study with other research findings, Dr. Hansraj does discuss spinal health. However, this is done in the context of how his model might help cervical spine surgeons, and none of the research on spinal health is originally his.

The only sources Dr. Hansraj uses to indicate the possible health benefits of good posture is work done on the psychological effects of power and posture. This research, conducted by Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, though interesting, has no direct link to spinal injuries caused by Text Neck. What they found was, that individuals in brief high-power-poses, had changes in neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance compared to individuals in brief low-power-poses. As they put it, “That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world actionable implications”. Given the brevity by which individuals can adopt these poses, I see no reason to think that smartphone use will prevent people from these posturing benefits. Unless, of course, Text Neck causes actual damage to the spine, rendering people incapable of adopting those poses, but no evidence is offered in Dr. Hansraj’s paper in defense of this idea.

Why then, has the media failed to cover this story properly? Part of this is the fault of Dr. Hansraj himself. In an interview with Nick Grimm on ‘The World Today’ he explains,

“KEN HANSRAJ: Nick, I’m a spinal surgeon and I only see spine cases. There are so many young people that are coming to me with neck and back pain when it’s just related to the posture that they’re engaged in all day.

NICK GRIMM: And these are sort of problems that young people of previous generations wouldn’t necessarily have been presenting with?

KEN HANSRAJ: I would have to say yes because they did not have the pervasiveness of the smart devices that we have right now.”

This exchange highlights what is known as confirmation bias; a psychological process by which individuals only look for evidence which confirms their hypothesis. Dr. Hansraj, who only sees people with spine injuries, is using that as the evidence that Text-Neck is a real concern, but is not counting all the people who may never need spinal help and are currently using smartphones with bad posture. In order to make sure that what you are seeing is an actual increase in spine related injuries, several robust studies would need to be conducted, which assess the extent to which those who text with bad posture compare to those who text with good posture when it comes to spinal injuries. As far as I am aware, a study like this has not been conducted.

This does not prevent Dr. Hansraj from using words like, “pandemic”, to describe the state of American spine problems. In an awkwardly scripted interview with his wife posted on youtube, Dr. Hansraj claims that, “studies show that 4-out-of-5 human beings have significant spinal conditions”. There are a few studies which back up this claim. For example, in 1998 in the journal Spine, researchers found that 84.1% of people in Saskatchewan had experienced low back pain in their lives. This number does not tell us much by itself, it does not for example, tell us how many individuals had low-intensity, short-duration, low back pain or had high-intensity, chronic, low back pain. If I had a stiff back for a few days, I don’t think it would be considered a, “significant spinal condition”.

Every Problem Has It’s Institute

On the website for the Text-Neck Institute you are greeted by this dire warning,

“TEXT NECK IS A GLOBAL EPIDEMIC! ‘Text Neck’ is a world-wide health concern, affecting millions of all ages and from all walks of life. Widespread overuse of handheld mobile technology is resulting in a harmful and dangerous physical condition on the human body, which is known as Text Neck

The institution even boasts that they invented the term. In fact, they have trademarked it. They have also developed a phone app they are selling for $2.99 that helps notify you when you are ruining your posture while using your device.

Chiropractor, Dean Fishman, founder of the Text Neck Institute, has made an appearance on the television show ‘The Doctors’. This particular episode was focused on health issues due to new technology, which makes for good television because it appeals to the Luddite in all of us. Parents have, throughout the ages, looked at the younger generation and have been shocked at what they see. Even back in ancient Greece, Socrates feared that the introduction of books would rot young minds, and we all see how that turned out.

The Doctors are also a good place to go when you want to peddle medical hype, as a recent study shows, only 63% of what they discuss is backed up by the lowest forms of evidential support. This number dropped to 53% when more robust evidence was considered. For a show called ‘The Doctors’, I would expect more than 53% of what they say to be backed up by evidence, but sadly, television has never been a repository of good information. Just spend one afternoon watching the History Channel and this becomes evidently clear. This is to be expected, as one of televisions main purposes is entertainment, and The Doctors are good looking, confident, and interesting to watch.

On the show, Fishman is presented with a child who is apparently suffering from headaches. There is no evidence that chiropractic treatment can help alleviate headaches, let alone any evidence that the child’s headache is caused by some sort of spinal condition. Yet, after an initial consultation with his young patient, Fishman suggests x-rays. As Dr. Edzard Ernst points out, the reason why chiropractors x-ray for non-specific back pain is two-fold. The first is that they believe in the long outdated notion of subluxation. Subluxations, to chiropractors, are structural displacements of the spine which lead to neurological and biomechanical disorders. Chiropractic subluxations don’t exist, yet many chiropractors still believe that they are the cause of pretty much everything that ails us. The use of the x-ray is supposed to help the chiropractor see these non-existent subluxations so that they can treat the patient. Often what they are really looking at is various  types of spinal misalignment, although there is little to no evidence linking these alignment issues with the chiropractic notion of subluxation. Secondly, x-rays are money makers, so there is a financial incentive to x-ray patients even if it isn’t necessary. This is problematic, considering that x-rays expose you to radiation. Being exposed to radiation is not bad in itself, but is problematic considering that the over-use of x-rays by chiropractors are unnecessary. Health care should appropriately match risk to benefit; chiropractic x-rays are a risk with no benefit.

Chiropractic itself can be a considered a risk with no benefit. Chiropractic neck manipulation has caused strokes in some patients. Given that there is very little evidence that chiropractic does anything, being exposed to the possibility of a stroke seems far too risky compared to the benefits. As Dr. Mark Crislip explains,

“…the biggest concern with making [Text Neck] a worry to people is the ‘solution’ to the problem. Somehow I suspect the treatment will be chiropractic manipulation of the neck. And that could lead to an increase in strokes. Great.”


There is no evidence that we are currently suffering from an epidemic of Text Neck. As James Hamblin writes, in response to the previously less-critical article in The Atlantic, “Texting invokes the same posture as holding a book. Or a baby. Or a rock”. So, if there was no Book Neck epidemic, why are we so worried about texting?

As we make technological progress, there are bound to be those who fear the effects these products have on us. However, we shouldn’t let our intuitive technophobia override our need for evidence.