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Dispelling food contamination myths

Globalisation poses new challenges to food security. A European project has fused risk assessment with risk perception and communication for an integrated strategy to address the problem.


The harmful effects of food contamination can hit health and economy but may also have social implications such as political instability. Natural sciences and social sciences experts pooled resources in the FOOD CONTAMINATION project to communicate with consumers on food contamination risks and control measures. The irony of the situation is that if consumers followed educational advice on food contamination risks, for example, risk would be considerably reduced. Psychological research has shown that individuals interpret uncertain situations in terms of their own experiences. A better understanding of consumers' mental models would help improve communication during foodborne disease outbreaks. The scientists developed an existing integrated model summarising the major factors determining risks during outbreaks of food spread illness. The new model integrates recurring elements in food safety communications and can be used to predict contamination risks. The beliefs regarding food safety, outbreaks, recalls, and foodborne illnesses of 30 American consumers contributed to an assessment of risk beliefs. This helped in the evaluation of communications regarding food-related risks. A common misbelief discovered in the interviews was underestimation of time between exposure and illness as well as the contagiousness of foodborne illnesses. The survey results proved the robustness of the interview results. Survey outcomes revealed that the incubation period for foodborne illnesses and risks of person-to-person contagion deserve special attention in consumer communications. A fuller mental model may help consumers translate their safe food knowledge into practice. For the European phase, interviews with 12 people revealed similar results to the United States exercise. The researchers could therefore apply the results of the American study to a representative group of over 500 British consumers. The results showed incorrect beliefs about many issues including correct food handling and recall procedures by government agencies and food producers. Similar results in both countries should help food health communicators to address the common misconceptions held by consumers. Overall, increased understanding of recall procedures could boost consumer trust in government agencies and members of the food supply chain.


Food security, risk assessment, risk perception, contamination, consumer, mental model, survey,

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