NZ FOOD & GROCERY COUNCIL AGAINST THE WEEKEND HERALDThe New Zealand Food and Grocery Council complains that a column in the Weekend Herald on 13 April 2013 misrepresents the safety of food additives in a fruit drink. The complaint is not upheld by a majority of 5:4, with one member abstaining. A minority opinion is attached.
A column in the Weekend Herald each week discusses a packaged food item and decodes what the label tells consumers about its contents. On 13 April the column featured Thriftee, a low-calorie raspberry-flavoured drink concentrate. It discussed, among other things, the presence of the red food colour additive amaranth (E123) and sweetener cyclamic acid (952).
The column attracted two complaints – this one from New Zealand Food and Grocery Council and one from the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, which is dealt with in a separate adjudication.
New Zealand Food and Grocery Council claimed the column breached three Press Council principles – principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), principle 4 (comment and fact) and principle 5 (headlines and captions).
In its view the column was not an opinion piece and did not draw a distinction between factual information and comment and opinion.
The headline – ‘Sweet drink has two additives banned in US’ – and the story misinformed the reader by giving undue emphasis to the banning of two additives by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than 40 years ago without telling the full story about what has happened since. This was not accurate, fair or balanced reporting.
It claimed the column misrepresented the present-day position, going against the expertise of the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, the Ministry for Primary Industries, the European Food Safety Authority and the current scientific consensus.
The FDA had removed its provisional approval of amaranth in 1976 not because of any safety concern, but because there was no data available at the time to prove safety. The single study on which the cyclamate decision was based had been superseded and dismissed, including by the FDA itself.
It says the column deliberately misled readers by a deliberate decision not to tell the full story. A reporter assigned by the newspaper to write an accompanying story about the use of the additives in New Zealand had been supplied evidence that demonstrated the safe use of the additives in more than 100 countries. But the newspaper had decided not to use that story.
The Newspaper’s Response
The Weekend Herald editor said the column was clearly an opinion piece, following the same style and format and in the same section of the newspaper as its other regular columnists. The column was loaded under the ‘opinion’ section of the newspaper’s website and people were able to comment on it.
In such a column, readers would expect to find fact and opinion. In this case the columnist had accurately presented the facts about the contents of the fruit drink – even if they were not all the facts wanted by the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council – and then given her opinion.
The column stated that other food regulators did not consider the additive cyclamic acid to be carcinogenic. It had not mentioned more recent information about amaranth, so an addition had been made to the online story saying that subsequent studies had no found no carcinogenic link.
Both additives remained off the list of allowable substances in the US.
The newspaper published a correction relating to the name of one of the preservatives mentioned, from potassium benzoate to sodium benzoate.
The editor said the newspaper had not set out to mislead readers as claimed. The decision to drop an accompanying story on the use of the additives in New Zealand had been made because of competing news priorities.
The Press Council agrees that while the column does not have ‘opinion’ written on it, it satisfies Press Council principle 4 by being clearly presented as opinion. It follows the format of the newspaper’s opinion pieces and it is evident from its content and recommendations that the writer is offering a view. Regular readers of the newspaper are unlikely to be confused.
The writer has formed an opinion about whether people should be consuming the fruit drink based on certain facts about the food additives it contains. There is no confusion between fact and opinion.
As an opinion piece, the writer has licence to express a view on the safety of the food additives – and in strong, even emotive language – as long as the argument is not based on inaccurate facts. The facts are that the additives cyclamic acid and amaranth have not been allowed in food in the United States since 1969 and 1976 respectively. From this the columnist has drawn her own conclusions about their safety. She does, however, acknowledge that some scientific and regulatory bodies do not believe these pose a risk.
Evidence supplied by the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council shows that public perception plays a role in the argument about food safety – occasionally overwhelming scientific evidence. The answer is not to attempt to shut down discussion or opinion – freedom of expression must be preserved – but to offer another view and to persuade public opinion if that is what is necessary.
The heading accurately reflects the substance of the column – US regulators do not allow either additive in food.
The writer is entitled to express a view about the safety of the food additives.
The opinion of the writer is based on accurate facts.
The majority of the Press Council does not uphold the complaint.
Where an article is clearly an opinion piece the Council places high value on freedom of expression and is reluctant to uphold a complaint against it. In this case however, although in format the article matches a number of other articles which clearly are opinion pieces, it purports to be a factual ‘decoding’ of what exactly the additives are in various processed foods and drinks, and their consequent food value and safety. While there is no clear evidence as to how the column is viewed by its readers there is at least anecdotal evidence that for some it is taken as sound advice on the value and safety of the foods commented on.
In this case there is a clear disjunction between the facts cited by Wendyl Nissen and her opinion on the safety of the additives in question. In addition in some places it is not at all clear whether she is stating facts or expressing an opinion. In the ‘Highlights’ panel and twice in the text Nissen states that cyclamic acid (the additive most at issue in the complaint), a sweetener, is banned in the United States – ‘a sweetener so horrible they haven’t been able to use it in the United States for 44 years’. This certainly gives the impression that she is stating as a fact that the substance remains banned in the United States for safety reasons, when it is clear that there are other reasons for its status.
She then adds the factual information that further research failed to replicate the research underlying the ban and that various reputable authorities have stated it is not a carcinogen. However, her opinion on cyclamic acid, expressed in intemperate and certainly unscientific language, ignores these facts. At the least in a column such as this, if the writer is going to express a view totally at variance with the facts one would hope for argument rather than emotive assertion to support her view, and a clear distinction between fact and opinion. In this case to justify her approach by labelling it ‘an opinion piece’ is a quite inadequate answer to the complaint.
For these reasons four members of the Press Council would have upheld the complaint.
Press Council members not upholding the complaint were Penny Harding, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Clive Lind and Sandy Gill.
Press Council members who would have upheld the complaint were Chris Darlow, Stephen Stewart, Liz Brown and Tim Beaglehole.
Barry Paterson abstained from voting.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.