A new EU-wide study has found that food experts blame the media for food 'scares' and subsequent consequences. The study also found that consumers are indifferent to media influences or motives. Food safety is something we take for granted - until something goes wrong. Outbreaks of BSE, food poisoning, contaminants, and even avian flu have swift and often lasting impacts on those industries. Now there are knock-on consequences, even for 'safe' food. As levels of heart disease and obesity continue to rise, questions are being asked about the safety of additives. For example, a debate over the safety of hydrogenated vegetable fat is currently taking place. The study, funded under the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) as part of the Safe Foods Integrated Project, 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. 'Over and over again, studies have focused on how people perceive food risks. What not yet has been examined before is 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,' said Dr Ellen van Kleef, lead researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. 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,' reads the report. Perhaps unsurprisingly, food experts believe that the measures taken to mitigate risk are effective, but they may of course be the ones making the decisions in their home country, or seeing that measures follow proscribed and established routes. 'In general, experts are more positive about the efficacy of food risk management practices than consumers. 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,' reads the report. Both experts and non-experts believe that the best measures to deal with food safety are preventative - deal with risk before people are presented with risk. As far as perceptions go, 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. This could have important implications for how governments deal with food safety scares. The study also 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. 'Proactive communication with relevant end-users, including consumers, about emerging food safety problems, may increase confidence in risk management practices,' reads the report. 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', reads the report. There will be further studies across a larger area. Safe Foods will conduct research across 19 European countries, involving 26 universities and research bodies. This initial study has laid down the groundwork for this much larger study, which will note the opinions of 2,500 consumers.
Germany, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands