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 to adopt and review SPS measures

Today I publish a guest article, written by my friend Francesco Montanari, Senior Associate at FARE (Food and Agriculture Requirements) and specialist in public affairs and relations, consultancy and legal counselling at EU-level, with particular focus on trade, labelling and food regulatory issues.

A)      EU ban on citrus fruit from South Africa

Early this December the EU adopted a ban on imports of citrus fruit, including lemons, oranges and tangerines, from South Africa. The ban follows several interceptions by EU Member States of imports from South Africa infested by black spot (Guignardia citricarpa). Black spot is a fungal plant disease that, although harmless to humans, can damage quality and quantity of citrus cultivation. Black spot is not present in Europe currently, thus its introduction may have a negative impact on European crops.

The ban is likely to have virtually no impact on trade for the time being: effectively, it applies only to imports harvested over the period 2012-2013. The EU, though, has the power to extend of the ban should the risk of spreading persist. Under those circumstances, impact on trade would be significant since exports of citrus fruit from that country accounts for one third of all EU imports.

The ban was adopted following discussions and negotiations at EU level in 2013. It is understood that South African government strongly opposed closure of EU borders to its exports for lack of conclusive scientific evidence as to the likelihood of the fungus spreading from picked fruit.

South Africa is not the only country that is currently subject to EU trade restrictions for exports of citrus fruit. Brazil, another major exporter of citrus fruits, has been subject since 2004 to specific import conditions to ensure consignments destined to imports in the EU are free from black spot (Decision 2004/417/EC as recently amended by Decision 2013/67/EU).

B) EU border surveillance on fruits and vegetables imported from non-EU countries

Always this month, the EU has updated the list of imported fruits and vegetables that are subject to reinforced border surveillance under Regulation (EC) No 669/2009. Following the fourteenth review of Annex I to that Regulation, the EU is planning to lift, as of 1 January 2014, border controls on:

  • hazelnuts from Azerbaijan (currently subject 10% of physical checks),
  • mace from Indonesia (10%) and India (10%),
  • ginger and curcuma from India (10%) –  all for possible contamination with aflatoxins, as well as
  • broccoli from Thailand (10%) for possible presence of pesticide residues.

Some of these products have been subject to increased levels of border controls for nearly four years. Overall, the relaxation of border surveillance is justified in light of the satisfactory levels of compliance emerging from the results of official controls performed by EU Member States. Nevertheless, controls will continue to be carried by national authorities – at the point of introduction, import or in the market – in accordance with what foreseen by Article 15 (1) of Regulation 882/2004 on official controls on food and feed.

Notwithstanding the announced changes, several imports will remain subject to a higher level of official controls at EU borders. Currently, China is the country with more products listed, including noodles (10% increased physical checks for detecting unauthorised use of aluminium), pomelos and tea (20% for pesticide residues) and frozen strawberries (5% for norovirus and hepatitis A).

C)      Emergency measures on certain imports of plant origin

Negotiations are currently ongoing at EU level in order to review Regulation (EC) 1152/2009 setting import conditions for certain products presenting a high risk of aflatoxins and Regulation (EU) No 91/2013 imposing import requirements on products of plant origin originating from Ghana, Nigeria and India.

As regards Regulation 1152/2009, amendments currently under discussion revolve around:

  • Extension of the scope of the measures to the products listed also when they are imported as feed,
  • Increase of the control intensity of identity and physical checks for certain products (dried figs from Turkey), reduction of frequency for others  (Brazilian nuts and hazelnuts from Turkey) and some delisting (US almonds),
  • The obligation for custom authorities to meticulously verify the content and the appropriate filling of the Common Entry Document accompanying the consignment (this in order to avoid imports being released for free circulation before official controls are completed).

As regards Regulation 91/2013, this safeguard measure foresees import requirements for products that were originally subject to Regulation 669/2009 and for which border controls showed very high levels of non-compliances.  The measure currently covers

  • Okra and curry leaves from India (pesticide residues),
  • Groundnuts and derived products from Ghana (aflatoxins)
  • Watermelon seeds from Nigeria (aflatoxins).

and allows importation of the above products only upon presentation by the importer of a health certificate and of results of laboratory tests performed in the country of origin.

An amendment currently under discussion would consider moving products that are listed for aflatoxins in Regulation 91/2013 to Regulation 1152/2009 since the controls follow the same rules. In principle, this should ensure greater consistency in the management of import policy on products of plant origin by the EU as well as in the implementation by the national control authorities.

D) Emerging risks?

Browsing the RASFF database is always an interesting exercise: it allows monitoring emerging and re-occurring risks. As regards imports of plant origin originating from non-EU countries, it is striking to look at the number of RASFF notifications for paan leaves from Bangladesh for presence of Salmonella (2012: 110 RASFF notifications; 2013: 23 notifications). Paan leaves are a traditional product that mostly Indian or Bangladeshi communities chew after meals.

Although the health risk associated with this product may be not of great concern and trade volume relatively low, it is difficult to justify the lack of action at EU level vis-à-vis a product that systematically fails to fulfil EU requirements.

Whether this issue would be better addressed through the adoption of an EU ban, stringent import requirements and/or by providing technical assistance to the exporting country, only EU policy-makers can provide these answers.

From the outside, however, it looks as if better use could be made of the resources currently deployed by the national authorities for the detection of a risk that is by now clearly ‘known’. By doing so, a better prioritisation of official controls would be ensured.