News - December 1, 2011

Analysis: Milk, the white nightmare

The Advertising Code Committee has ruled that the Wageningen article on milk was not advertising. A Pyrrhic victory.

The committee's ruling is crystal clear. Reporting positive health effects of milk does not constitute advertising. Not even if the style is commercial, the headline resembles advertising slogans and the research is financed by the dairy industry. It is only advertising if the dairy industry has a direct influence on the message. Which it doesn't. Wageningen UR 1, Wakker Dier 0. All's well that ends well.
It's not that simple, though. If the affair has made one thing clear, it is the vulnerability of Wageningen UR to campaigns like Wakker Dier's. The key is arousing suspicion and suggestion. Fact: Wageningen UR works closely with the dairy industry. Suggestion: the result of the research and the reporting were predetermined. You can't argue with that. Conspiracy theories are very persistent, and the media love them too.
It is also clear that Wageningen UR has difficulty handling questions like these. Denials and refutations of the accusations are not enough. More is needed. Wageningen has lost its link with society to some extent, declared Communications professor Cees van Woerkum recently about this question and others. And he hit the nail on the head. Organizations like Wakker Dier can also access the media easily and do so intelligently. There are not many science journalists who take the time to check facts, let alone scientific facts.
This affair has not helped the image of the sciences at Wageningen at all. When even the co-authors of a scientific article squabble about how to interpret it, all outsiders can do is shake their heads and look on in bafflement. That is exactly what happened when the American professor of nutrition Walter Willet got involved in the question. Weeks of bickering yielded such a woolly compromise that the Dutch press - whether justifiably or not - came to a unanimous conclusion: Wageningen is retracting the milk study.
Nevertheless, the ruling by the Advertising Code Committee is a plus. Publications about scientific research will not need to be measured against advertising yardsticks in future. But the damage to the public image makes it feel like a Pyrrhic victory.