One of the dangers of holding strong opinions is that it becomes easy to believe that you are always right and the other side’s arguments have so little merit that no one would ever take their side. I think that one of the best ways to avoid the hubris of discounting the other side’s arguments is to be forced to assume the other side’s position and defend it. This is exactly the approach taken at the Current Controversies in Food Safety Round Table at the International Association of Food Protection’s annual convention in Charlotte, N.C. It made for an entertaining and thought-provoking exercise.

The overflow crowd that attended the session was provided with electronic voting devices by Alchemy Systems to register their votes on questions both before and after debate. A seasoned food safety professional was assigned either the pro or con position on each issue with nine minutes to present their arguments. Each side then had three minutes for rebuttal, which was followed by questions and comments from the audience.

The organizers of this session did a good job selecting the six “debaters”: Francisco Diez, University of Minnesota; Douglas Powell, formerly of Kansas State University; Michael Robach, Cargill; Joseph Meyer, Covance Laboratories; David Acheson, formerly of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and Linda Harris, University of California at Davis. Each debater provided a lively defense of the position that they were assigned. Of the three questions, the one I found most intriguing was, “Should food safety become a marketing tool?”

As someone who has worked in or around food companies for nearly three decades, I have assumed the industry’s default position that food safety shouldn’t be a competitive area was correct. Prior to the debate, 58 percent of the audience said it shouldn’t be a competitive area. After a lively debate, with numerous humorous anecdotes by Powell and Robach, the vote shifted to approximately 65 percent voting "no." The audience was comprised of food safety professionals from the industry, academia and government as well as consultants and vendors.

Besides being extremely entertaining, I hoped the one-and-a-half-hour exercise was enlightening for the audience. When making persuasive arguments for a position, it is really important to fully understand all of the possible points that can be made on the other side, not just the positions that the other side is currently taking. An effective strategy requires that you look dispassionately at the pros and cons of both sides of the issue. Once you have done this, you must, as Powel said in another session, present the science, but tell a compelling story. Many times we only see our side from the scientific standpoint and hear only emotional arguments from the other side. It was interesting to see both sides presented with the associated science and a little emotion and, yes, a little humor.