Lost in translation: Blueberry viruses are not a food safety risk for consumers

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.  

Since the discovery of the blueberry shock and scorch viruses around West Michigan, there has been a large volume of articles and information coming out of both MSU and the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA). This information has attracted national and international attention and has been disseminated all over the world. Communication between growers, scientists and regulatory agencies has been very effective in informing the Michigan blueberry industry and stakeholders about the danger that implies the spread of these viruses across the production area. Despite this efficiency in communicating between and within the blueberry industry, our communication seems to be less effective when dealing with the public.

Some consumers that have read or listened about the “new viruses” in blueberries are concerned about the health risk to humans if they consume blueberries from fields infected with these viruses. Plant pathogens are not a threat to humans, they only affect plants, but not everybody out of the agricultural community understands this concept. The reason is simple. Every community develops its own culture, and this culture is communicated to members through a language. People outside this community will have a hard time trying to figure out the meaning of that particular language.

In agriculture, we have different “cultures” that are represented by growers of the diverse commodities we produce. For those of us immersed in the blueberry industry, communication within the blueberry growing community is not a problem because we all speak the same language. In other words, we share the same “culture.” However, communication across commodities or “cultures” out of our own is another matter.

When we try to communicate a subject to another culture, we need to access this culture through its own language. Otherwise, the meaning will be lost in translation.

For lay people, when we talk about viruses the first thing that comes to mind are human pathogens. People are not obligated to know the difference between a human pathogen and a plant pathogen.

When consumers read a newspaper with a heading like “Pair of blueberry viruses hit area farms: Blueberry shock, blueberry scorch found in Michigan for first time” (Kalamazoo News, July 28, 2009) or “Two viruses threaten Michigan blueberry industry; scientists forced to destroy research plants” (The Washington Examiner, August 31, 2009), it is unavoidable that some blueberry consumers wonder if eating blueberries they will get exposed to the “new viruses” found in our fields.

When dealing with the blueberry shock and scorch virus issue, it seemed that our first target audience was the blueberry growing community. But the media took the issue and made it a public matter. Therefore, it will be very important that in our next meeting (September 24, 2009) we emphasize and clarify to the public that consuming blueberries does not represent a human health risk.

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