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A layperson's view of a science communication problem

There’s a story in one of the NZ papers saying that Fonterra and the government are completely wrong about the source of the botulism contamination in milk products and about how to fix it.

This is a field I know very little about, so it’s interesting to look at the story just from the point of view of an educated consumer.

There are some stylistic points that make the story look like it could be bogus: the claim that this one guy is right and everyone else is wrong, the reference to “sitting on material that will embarrass Fonterra further”, blaming the problem on glyphosate (evil Monsanto’s evil Roundup herbicide), the lack of any links or details for the research, and the lack of any independent scientific opinion. Also, the story is unclear over whether the claim is that the bacteria come from infected cows, or that the neurotoxin is already in the milk of infected cows. 

I looked up ‘botulism glyphosate’ on PubMed, and found one very new paper that says diseases in cattle caused by the botulism bacterium have been increasing for the past 10-15 years, and showing that glyphosate suppressed the growth of one of the bacteria that competes with the botulism bacterium, and so might lead to more cattle being infected. That’s supportive, but it’s still only about diseases in cattle and is just test-tube research, so it’s only modestly supportive.

The range of possibilities seems to be something like

  1. There really is this problem that Fonterra either doesn’t know about or is covering up, that some of the milk is contaminated from the start
  2. It’s true but not all that important.  Perhaps glyphosate really makes the bacteria more common, but there still had to be a failure of processing and bacteria growing in a pipe.
  3. The guy’s a crank

What would be most helpful in ruling out some of these possibilities is a comment from an independent expert. On a story of this importance, I would have expected the reporter to contact someone for a second opinion. Massey University has world-class vets and veterinerary epidemiologists, so they’d be the obvious source. Nigel French has already appeared in the media on this issue, so he’d be one place to start.

Update: Dr Heather Hendrickson, from Massey, and Dr Siouxsie Wiles, from Auckland, who actually know about bacteria, have written posts on the issue, and it looks like this theory doesn’t fly.