Does media such as FoodProductionDaily.com and others overly hype food safety issues to the public?
Ahmed ElAmin of Food Production Daily for Decision News Media SAS reports that in a survey consumers say they are indifferent to media influences, a depressing finding to those who work in the industry.
Recent food safety incidents and the introduction of genetically modified foods in Europe have resulted in public concern over the safety of the European food supply.
According to an EU project researching ways to make the supply safer, consumers have little confidence in the safety of their food supply and remain sceptical and distrustful of the management procedures currently in place.
The implications of the study are that despite an increase in regulations and safeguards over the past five years, public concern remains high and could put further pressure on government to take additional measures.
The food industry and regulators also need to do more to educate the media and the public about the issues, the report’s authors suggest.
Both experts and non-experts believe that the best measures to deal with food safety are preventative. Regulators, food companies, retailers and others in the supply chain should deal with risk before people are presented with the risk, the study found.
The study also found the public may be suspicious of the motives behind particular measures.
“If the public believe that the real reason behind a measure is financial or political rather than driven by safety, then this actually increases the public’s concern,” the study found. “This could have important implications for how governments deal with food safety scares.”
The study, done for the EU-funded Safe Foods Integrated Project uncovered a disparity between experts and non-experts in the levels of information that they felt were needed.
The expert group believed that the public needs more information or education about particular issues. However, the non-expert group believed that they were often overloaded with information, unable to take it all in.
Perhaps this could be where misinformation sets in – at the border between these two positions, the report suggests.
“Proactive communication with relevant end-users, including consumers, about emerging food safety problems, may increase confidence in risk management practices,” stated the report’s authors.
This first study provides “a useful first glance at the range of important societal concerns that need to be accounted for in food risk management”, the report stated.
The study found food experts believe that the measures taken to mitigate risk are effective. Their views may be colored by the fact that they may be the very decision makers on food safety in their home countries, or be responsible for ensuring that measures follow proscribed and established routes.
“In general, experts are more positive about the efficacy of food risk management practices than consumers,” the report stated. “When consumers perceive food risks to be well managed, this is often associated with established systems of control of which people are aware, such as the mechanisms for controlling a food poisoning outbreak.”
Ellen van Kleef, lead researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said other studies have focused on how people perceive food risks. This study breaks new ground by focusing on how people perceive the way food risks are managed and what is the best way to deal with food safety issues according to experts and consumers.
The study also tried to identify cultural differences in five EU member states: the Netherlands, Greece, the UK, Denmark and Germany. The study used focus groups to determine opinion through discussion, using “expert” and “non-expert” groups in each country.
The findings showed that the expert groups were highly consistent in their views, while in the non-expert groups, opinions varied considerably.
“Experts tended to express the same view independent of their cultural origins, whereas consumers tended to differ in their opinions across countries,” the report stated.
Safe Foods plans to conduct further surveys across 19 European countries, involving 26 universities and research bodies. This initial study lays down the groundwork for the much larger study, which will survey the opinions of 2,500 consumers.