Column – Science Media Centre
Issue 246 30 August – 5 September 2013
Fonterra, false positives & ‘hysteria’
Executives at dairy giant Fonterra have expressed relief after it was revealed that a false test reading triggered the botulism scare that led to a recall of infant formula around the world.
But questions remain as to how the testing regime used by Fonterra returned results for the potentially lethal Clostridium botulinum.
“The consequences of this particular false positive have been very grave and we want answers as to why on earth this happened,” trade minister Tim Groser said yesterday.
Microbiologists approached by the SMC said that clostridium botulinum and C. sporogenes, the safe strain mistaken for it, are very similar, differing by just one gene.
Nevertheless, standard testing should have confirmed whether the contaminating strain could produce toxin and was therefore really C. botulinum. The presence of toxin-producing genes can be detected in “hours to days” said University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.
“The information Fonterra should have released initially was how much contamination they had actually identified. This would have allowed experts in the field to have made an educated guess as to the likelihood of any children becoming ill from consuming the contaminated product in the event it had contained a toxin-producing strain. This was information worried parents were desperate for.”
However, Dr Wiles and other scientists, such as AUT microbiologist, Dr John Brooks, said given what they thought they knew, Fonterra executives did the “the right thing in notifying its customers of the potentially hazardous product and recalling the protein concentrate”.
Fonterra said on Wednesday the initial test that incorrectly detected botulism was done by Crown research institute AgResearch, which has defended the robustness of its testing processes.
Several inquiries into the Fonterra food safety scare are underway and will include examination of the testing that was undertaken.
Marketing academics said today that Fonterra needs to carefully examine how this “fiasco” evolved the way it did.
“There was no need to mention unproven fears concerning the nature of the organism. They could have just mentioned that there was suspected contamination by an organism that had the potential to cause illness. This should have been followed up by rapid, extensive testing to determine the exact nature of the contamination.
“Sounding a strident alarm based on wrong information-essentially ‘crying wolf’-has the potential to weaken response to a genuine crisis some time in the future.”
Full commentary from scientists is available on the SMC website.
SMC’s new quake-proof home
The Science Media Centre has relocated from its tiny base on Wellington’s Manners St, Wellington to the Royal Society of New Zealand’s recently renovated headquarters in Thorndon.
The move sees the SMC, an independent unit administered by the RSNZ and funded by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, now operating out of the nation’s key hotspot of science communication and public outreach activity.
As well as gaining access to a regular stream of scientists visiting the RSNZ, the SMC will be able to take advantage of the Society’s state-of-the-art facilities for press conferences, panel discussions and media-related events.
“The recent earthquakes in Wellington saw Civil Defence use the Royal Society to run its press conferences to great effect,” said SMC manager Peter Griffin.
“It brought home to me what a great facility it is for holding media and public events. We were previously in a poky little office on the other end of town that wasn’t really suitable for holding media events of any size, so intend to use the infrastructure now available to us to bring science and the media together.”
As well as holding regular media briefings on science-related subjects, the SMC will run its Science Media SAVVY communication workshops at the RSNZ, and its newly launched Science Masterclass series for journalists.
“The RSNZ has rich expertise in science policy, publishing, science education and runs an extensive programme of public lectures which we will also be able to take advantage of,” added Griffin.
As an added benefit, the RSNZ headquarters is now one of the most earthquake-proof buildings in Wellington! Come and visit the SMC on your next visit to the neighbourhood.
11 Turnbull St, Thorndon, Wellington 6011
Postal address is:
Science Media Centre
PO Box 598,
04 499 5476
On the science radar this week…
Human brain-to-brain interface, a really compact electric car, the fastest spinning object, ‘cancer’ is a scary word and fashion meets high tech functionality.
Climate ‘pause’ linked to cooler Pacific
Up-welling ocean currents masking recent climate change — for now
The apparent ‘pause’ in climbing global mean temps is part of natural climate variability, the researchers say, tied to a “La-Niña-like decadal cooling”. They project that long-term global warming will resume once the tropical Pacific switches back to its warm state.
Other scientists have been quick to point out that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise to unprecedented levels, and that the new findings are no cause for complacency.
“Observations showed a continued trapping of heat in the Earth’s climate system, despite the temporary slowdown in surface warming,” said Will Hobbs, of Australia’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.
“An important question that the paper does not address is where this energy has gone. Almost certainly it is in the deep ocean.”
“When the natural oscillation swings the other way, as it must eventually do, we are going to see a period of much faster global warming”, said Dr Alex Sen Gupta. of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
“When that might occur is the next big scientific question.”
The Australian Science Media Centre has rounded up more in-depth commentary on the new research.
Evaluating scientific research
The fourth in a series of articles from the new edition of the SMC Desk Guide for Covering Science which is available in full here.
All research should be read with a critical eye. Here are some things to keep in mind when a new study or paper comes across your desk.
Consider the source: Evaluate the credibility of the individuals and the organisation that produced the research. Research produced by respected researchers and institutions is more likely to be trustworthy.
Correlation vs. causation: Did A actually cause B, or are A and B connected for reasons we don’t fully understand? This is crucial to determining the significance of the research.
Sampling is more important than sample size: While a study’s sample size is important, even more important is the way the sample was collected. If the procedures to select the study’s sample are not done well, then we cannot assume that the findings for the sample generalise to the population.
Any one study is not the whole story: Research is most valuable when many specific studies are taken together to tell the whole story of what we know on a given topic. Any single study, no matter how good, needs to be viewed in the context of other research on the topic.
What to ask an expert when evaluating research
• How does this study compare with others that have come before?
• How does it add to or contradict existing scientific views?
• Was the study well designed?
• Are the results compelling enough to recommend a change in our current behaviour/treatment/regulations?
• What would be the effect of such changes versus keeping things as they are?
Quoted: Radio New Zealand
“Here’s an opportunity for people to actually have a dialogue with scientists and for scientists to actually find out what the community thinks about their work.”
Prof Shaun Hendy
on the online game Pounamu.
New from the SMC
2013 Science Investment Round: A closer look at the $278 million in public funds awarded in the latest contestable round.
Mental and drug disorders: Read expert comment on new research modelling the total global health cost of mental and substance use disorders.
Botulism mix-up: Experts provide commentary to the revelation that Fonterra milk whey powder was not contaminated with Clostridium botulinum as previously thought.
Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:
What am I? The definitions of ‘lecturer’ and ‘teacher’ get a thorough looking over from Alison Campbell.
A new entity is born: CDaR – John Pickering heralds the coming of the Clinical Data Research group, which will focus on the stories numbers in medicine tell us.
The big warm: NZ heading for warmest-ever winter – Gareth Renowden looks at winter temperatures, old and new.
Pounamu returns Thursday Aug 29 – Where is NZ going to be in 2023? Shaun Hendy wants you to join the conversation with the help of an online ‘micro-forecasting’ game.
A Measure of Science
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Facing up to health robots: The more humanlike a healthcare robot’s face display is, the more people attribute positive personality characteristics to it. That’s one of the key findings from new University of Auckland research exploring how people perceive faces displayed on a blood pressure monitoring robot. The authors also warn robot designers must be careful not to creep people out; the research found that a subset of people who perceived the robot’s human-like face as ‘eerie’ also rated it as less amiable, less sociable and less trustworthy.
Climate hiatus: The current pause in global warming is part of natural climate variability, reports a new climate modelling study. The recent cooling of tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures is implicated by the authors as the cause of the recent stabilization of global temperatures. It is predicted that long-term global warming will resume when the tropical Pacific switches back to a warm state, which is influenced by a number of factors including ocean current patterns.
Brain-in-a-dish: European scientists have grown a 3D ‘brain-like’ organ using human stem cells. The ‘organoid’ has a variety of brain regions that are capable of influencing one another, and the tissues are organised in layers similar to the developing human brain at early stages. The researchers have used this model to study a brain development disorder which has been difficult to model in mice.
See-through stretchy speakers: US scientists have developed fully functioning loudspeakers that are totally transparent, made from an conductive ionic hydrogel. An immediate application of the technology could be noise cancelling windows, but the authors have higher hopes that the materials could be used to make better bio-compatible human implants. Video available.
Coeliac ‘iceberg’: Australian researchers have developed a new approach to detecting coeliac disease (CD), revealing the disorder, characterised by an inappropriate immune response to gluten, is far more common than previously recognised. The testing strategy combines genetic and blood antibody testing (instead of a bowel biopsy) and shows CD potentially affects at least one in 60 Australian women and one in 80 men, suggesting that diagnosed CD is just the tip of the “Coeliac Iceberg”. Previous estimates had the number of coeliac disease sufferers as no more than one in 100.
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Rena costs: Environment Minister Amy Adams has announced a further $542,000 to be invested in environmental recovery post-Rena, bringing the total to $2.42 million.
MBIE gains Chief Science Advisor: The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has appointed Professor Jim Metson to the advisory role.
DHB votes: A total of 381 people have put their names forward for places on the 20 District Health Boards in the upcoming elections to be held 12 October.
New stats boss: Liz MacPherson has been appointed as Government Statistician and Statistics New Zealand chief executive.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• A Planet without apes – Public lecture Prof Craig Stanford (US) – 30 August, Auckland; 2 September, Tauranga; 4, Wellington; 5, Palmerston North; 6, Christchurch.
• Tell Me a Story – Inaugural Professorial lecture of Prof Elaine Reese (Otago) – Dunedin, 3 September.
• Ozone Research Symposium– 2013 early to mid-career researcher public symposium – 5 September, Dunedin.
• NZ Food Addiction Symposium – 6 September, Christchurch.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.