EFSA – Consumer perceptions of emerging risks in the food chain

The following article, beside examining EFSA report, will offer many insightful hints about how to build an effective crisis management strategy. Understand and anticipate consumer’s reaction is indeed the key. It will highlight also the ambivalent relationships that most of the consumers have with science and technology, when they mix up with food.

Emerging risks are defined by EFSA as risks “resulting from a newly identified hazard to which a significant exposure may occur or from an unexpected new or increased significant exposure and/or susceptibility to a known hazard” (EFSA, 2007).

Emerging risks in the food chain are characterised by high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity: this potentially makes more difficult to communicate about emerging risks than about “established” and well understood risks.

The lack of appropriate risk’s communications can leave a vacuum that is filled by media speculation or rogue scientific analysis, therefore communication about emerging risks can help prevent the amplification or attenuation of risk perceptions. This pushed EFSA to investigate consumer knowledge and concerns about food emerging risks, as well as consumer needs and preferences with regard to emerging risk communication. The aim of the study was to better understand the views of EU consumers related emerging risks, so as to inform future communication activities around emerging risks at EFSA and Member State National Competent Authorities.

To address these object, EFSA delivered a consumer survey in 25 EU countries, asking just over 6,200 consumers about potential emerging risks related to food safety. The study investigated consumer attitudes of emerging risks through three examples:

  • green smoothies (shake or mixture of raw leafy greens and fruits intended to be consumed as a drink but whose consumption could lead to adverse health effects),
  • plastic rice (fake rice produced using a mix of potatoes, sweet potatoes and plastic, whose ingredients are harmful to consumers’ health)
  • nanoparticles (whose use in the food chain may have significant benefits for food but at the same time may have toxic effects on consumers).

These three examples illustrated emerging risk respectively resulting from: new food consumption trends, food fraud and new technologies.

The study delivered that there were differences between types of emerging risks, and between attitudes to emerging risks in EU Member States. Those differences correlated often – but not always – with, and were partly explained by reference to, variables that also contribute to attitudes to established risks: the perceived level of control over the risk, its natural/man-made character, familiarity with the risk, and public trust. They were also correlated to educational and generational factors.

However, the study did not indicate that emerging risks triggered significantly greater levels of concern than established risks. Rather the study found that consumers tended to be more concerned about established risks than emerging risks. Food fraud, which arguably may include both established and emerging risks, was of greater concern to consumers than other types of emerging risks. Overall, consumers considered green smoothies less risky than nanoparticles, and nanoparticles less risky than plastic rice.

Negative attitudes towards new food technologies may be linked with the perception that scientific advancements benefit the food industry, rather than consumers. This view is, however, contradicted by responses to other elements of the questionnaire that addressed the benefits of science and technology in food, where 78% of the sample agreed that scientific discoveries can help address some food issues.

The study delivered strong evidence of how malleable perceptions of emerging risks are, something which sets them apart from established risks. Indeed, communicating information to consumers about both the nature of emerging risks and the uncertainty surrounding them appeared to have a significant impact on risk perceptions, specially in a context where a very large proportion of the respondents appeared to lack knowledge of the risks discussed. Overall, the most common impact was an amplification of risk perception, although there were also instances of attenuated risk perception. In the case of green smoothies, information about risk and uncertainty led a large number of consumers to revise their risk perception levels upwards. Perceptions changed also for both plastic rice and nanoparticles, although to a lesser extent. These impacts suggest that communications about emerging risks may entail beneficial changes to consumer awareness, especially in situations where precaution may be advised.

If on one hand the study documented a lack of knowledge about the emerging risks used in the survey, on the other it also documented an overwhelming appetite for information about emerging risks, irrespective of the extent of the uncertainty. In general, consumers across the EU indicated that they would like to be informed of emerging risks earlier rather than later, in spite of uncertainties. Besides, consumers indicated that they were generally interested in obtaining not only general information but also information that could help them in making decisions about the risk, such as how to avoid it and how it affects them. Traditional media and the websites of national authorities were the preferred channels of information on emerging risks, while the sources of information that consumers had most confidence in were evaluators (health professionals and scientists) followed by watchdogs (consumer organizations and food safety authorities).

The question arises as to how EFSA and National Competent Authorities in Member States can and should respond to these findings. While the citizens and cultures of the EU are highly diverse, it is advised that organisations responsible for assessing emerging risks and managing both uncertainty and risk should provide a unified and consistent set of messages. This would avoid the risk that different messages may be translated and compared, leading to confusion and distrust. To reassure consumers in Member States and countries to which the EU exports food and beverage products, EFSA should communicate in a unified and consistent manner both what is known and what is uncertain about the possible existence of, and potential significance of, emerging risks. Moreover, given that emerging risks are intrinsically uncertain, EFSA and National Competent Authorities should be clear about the existence of uncertainties. In relation to this particular feature, the literature recommends that information about “those uncertainties that really matter to the magnitude of the risk and its management” is communicated to the public (Kasperson 2014: 1236).

While new information should translate into updated messages as time goes on, consumers could also contribute to risk assessment if risk communicators were to enrol them in the process; for instance, consumers can contribute information on their exposure to the risk that risk assessors can then evaluate and take into account.

In other words, risk communication could operate as an exchange between consumers and risk communicators/assessors, rather than as a one-way transmission of risk information from experts to consumers. This is even more so the case with emerging risks, where there is a lack of available evidence to “correct” consumers’ risk perceptions.

EU Study on Food Waste and Date Marking published

The EU Commission is publishing a study which estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tons of food waste generated annually in the EU are linked to date marking.

The study was commissioned with a view to map how date marking is used in the market by food business operators and control authorities. The study found wide variation in date marking practices which, along with poor legibility of date marks (for 11% of products sampled), do not facilitate consumer understanding. Conclusions of the study stress that strengthened cooperation and innovation amongst actors in the food supply chain can play an important role in preventing food waste and that additional guidance by control authorities may be needed in certain areas, for instance to facilitate food redistribution past the “best before” date.

Date marking is specifically tackled by the Commission as part the Circular Economy Action Plan to prevent food waste generation in the EU.  In order to discuss with all key players the report’s findings and their possible implications for food waste prevention, the Commission will create a dedicated sub-group on date marking under the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste. Objectives will be to discuss possible options (legislative and non-legislative) and help guide coordinated action by all actors concerned:  public authorities in EU Member States, food business operators, consumer – and other NGOs.

The Commission’s study is available here

In general, is interesting to note that the market research found variation in date marking practices within product types and among Member States. Of the ten product types sampled for this study, only sauce, sliced bread, and fresh juice had predominantly the same type of date mark in all eight Member States surveyed. (Along with hard cheese, these were the product types for which more than 80% of products sampled displayed a “best before” date mark.)

The other product types tend to display a “use by” date mark in some Member States but a “best before” date mark in others. Examples were even found of otherwise identical products manufactured by international brands displaying a “use by” date in one Member State and a “best before” date in another. In general, “use by” date marks were less commonly found on products purchased in Sweden and Germany than on the same products purchased in other Member States.

The stakeholder interviews provided insights into the causes of the differences among FBOs and among Member States in what type of date mark is regarded as appropriate for which type of product and why:

  • a product type carrying “use by” in some markets will carry a “best before” date mark in others
  • “use by” date marks are being used on some products where there is no apparent food safety reason for doing so and thus where a ‘”best before” date would be more appropriate; and
  • there are examples of products listed in Annex X of the FIC Regulation (Reg. EU n. 1169/2011) having a date mark where none is required.

Some producers are taking account of factors beyond the product characteristics when determining how to apply the terms of the FIC Regulation. These include their perceptions of consumer knowledge of date labels. Some producers apply “use by” date marks to products (for which a “best before” date mark would be more appropriate) as a precautionary measure given the uncertainties about consumer
handling food safely.

This is also linked to:

  • different perceptions as to which foods are ‘highly perishable’ in each market;
  • retailer preferences for date marking practices, including examples of:
  • a preference for using “use by” dates for particular categories of product, such as all chilled products or all fresh produce; and
  • a preference to use “use by” dates to indicate freshness to the consumer

Retailers tend to favour a consistent approach to date marking for each product type in each national market but are used to accommodating variation in labeling practice between national markets. The determination of the preferred type of label in each
country is influenced by factors that include perceived expectations of consumers and, in some cases, guidance provided by a trade association or the relevant National Competent Authorities (NCAs).

The market survey found also that:

  • A wide range of storage advice was available for the sampled products, particularly in relation to the appropriate storage temperature for chilled products (which was expressed either as a maximum temperature or a temperature range).
  • The storage temperatures quoted on products tended to be lower than the standard maximum retail temperatures mentioned by interviewees as the norm for the relevant market. The storage advice in the same product group was often found to vary or even be contradictory across different markets, potentially leading to consumer confusion.
  • There was variation across the product types in the prevalence of advice on open life. Such advice was provided on the majority of fresh juice and pre-prepared chilled pasta products. It was least commonly found on yoghurt, tomato sauce, hard cheese and sliced bread.

Interviewees acknowledged the lack of consistency in storage advice and open life advice. There was no consensus on what constituted good quality, non-mandatory advice on open life for consumers.

The discussions suggested that FBOs’ concern to avoid customer complaints and adjustments for factors such as consumer knowledge, and uncertainty about the  conditions in which the product might be stored, led them to use formulations such as ‘consume immediately’ as a precautionary measure.