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.

Brief overview on the Reg. (EU) n. 1169/2011, also known as FIC (“Food information to consumers”).

Following the requests of many of my “non-EU” readers, I publish a brief recap of the new provisions of the Regulation…and some links to useful resources.

As of 13 December 2014, new EU food labeling rules are in force: from this date became applicable the Regulation (EU) n. 1169/2011 on food information to consumers, also known as FIC or FIR Regulation. The aim of the new rules is to ensure that consumers receive clearer, more comprehensive and accurate information on food content, helping them to make informed choices about what they eat. The new Regulation replaces the old Directive 2000/13/EU, which is now repealed.

Some of the key changes to the labeling rules are outlined below:

  • Improved legibility of the information (minimum font size for mandatory information, now 1,2 mm in the most of cases);

  • Clearer and harmonised presentation of allergens (e.g. soy, nuts, gluten, lactose) for prepacked foods (emphasised by font, style or background colour) in the list of ingredients;

  • Mandatory allergen information for non-prepacked food, including those sold in restaurants and cafes;

  • Requirement of certain nutrition information for majority of prepacked processed foods (applicable from 13th December 2016);

  • Mandatory origin information for fresh meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry (Reg. (EU) n. 1337/2014);

  • Same labeling requirements for online, distance-selling or buying in a shop;

  • List of engineered nanomaterials in the ingredients.

  • Specific information on the vegetable origin of refined oils and fats;

  • Strengthened rules to prevent misleading practices;

  • Indication of substitute ingredient for ‘Imitation’ foods;

  • Clear indication of “formed meat” or “formed fish”;

  • Clear indication of defrosted products;

  • Clear indication of added water, especially in meat and fish products.

The Regulation was published three years ago and provides a transitional period for exhaustion of stocks for foods placed on the market or labeled before 13 December 2014 (but this does not includes labels).

Despite food business operators have been given three years to ensure a smooth transition towards the new labeling regime for prepacked and non-prepacked foods, the situation is quite to be clear, especially for non-prepacked foods, where there is not a full harmonization and the EU Commission left space to national legislation.

On this side, there is also an ongoing study on the feasibility of a EU database to facilitate the identification of all EU and national mandatory labeling rules in a simple way. This should offer a user-friendly tool for all food business operators and for SME’s, but it will not be ready at least until the second part of 2015.

Recently, on the DG SANCO website, were published Guidelines related to the indication of the presence of certain substances or products causing allergies or intolerances as described in Article 9.1(c) and listed in Annex II of the Regulation. The document is the subject of a public consultation that will end on 4th January 2015 and it covers also some aspects related to non-prepacked foods.

On 31st January 2013, the EU Commission published the first – and until now unique – document of clarification of some specific provisions: Questions and Answers on the application of the Regulation (EU) N° 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. More Q&A and guidelines documents are expected to be published in the next few months: they will cover different topics, in particular general labeling, nutrition labeling, the QUID (Quantitative Ingredients Declaration) and specific products’ type (i.e. meat and fish).