The World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent warning about links between processed meat and colorectal cancer has rapidly invaded the media and just as quickly faded away. This disappearance is remarkable, especially considering the numerous societal concerns about healthy food and lifestyles around Europe. Are consumers less sensitive to warnings from such renowned institutes as WHO and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)? Does the media perceive it to be yet another overreaction? So far, no NGO has stepped up to call for regulations, precautionary measures or bans. It seems at first glance that the meat processing industry has managed to avoid major scandal, and it seems it has done so quite easily.

I realise I am making a bold statement here and not everybody may agree on this. However, I think this case deserves more consideration and debate amongst communicators and public affairs professionals. So feel free to start or join the discussion.

What is really happening here? Has the animal farming and meat industry become so strongly rooted in our society and culture that it’s become resilient to “scandals”? Or are stakeholders just holding off, preparing their arguments for the next round of media commentary? The agro-chemicals business has been attacked multiple times by various NGOs, finally forcing policy makers into taking legislative actions. The meat production and processing sector may well be the next industry to face public scrutiny and forced to learn a difficult lesson from the agro-chemicals experience.

Ironically, although decades of innovation in crop protection, animal breeding and food processing techniques have significantly improved the quality, availability and affordability of food and food ingredients, the consensus about the many benefits of scientific innovation seems to be eroding day after day. The use of pesticides is increasingly contested, GMOs remain a highly debated topic and the latest discussions in Brussels show no progress on how to handle it; the essence of science based policy is increasingly questioned. One of the common denominators in every discussion is a clear concern about human health. Issues affecting the food industry at large, including the risks of plant protection residues in fruit and vegetables and cancer risks posed by meat consumption, undeniably drag the debate into the broader life sciences sector.

The life sciences industry has encountered big challenge. Traditional thinking has become a barrier to further progress, and new out-of-the-box concepts for innovation will be needed. The pharmaceutical industry achieved this by moving out of traditional originating techniques and into the development of biologicals. Innovative thinking such as this will also be needed in communication and policy-making. Going forward, corporate communications and public affairs need to embrace the demand for more transparency and participation echoed by the European Commission’s Better Regulation efforts in order to prompt more engagement with society.  Health and environmental sustainability need to come with a greater focus on the whole ecosystem, and this has to be reflected in how scientific innovation is communicated and how policy is created.

These are the fundamentals upon which the life sciences industry at large, and the industries which closely depend upon it such as food processing, agriculture and healthcare, should think about reformulating their purpose in society and thereby earn their credibility, to improve their reputation and ultimately secure their license to operate.