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Institute of Food Research What do ‘we’ mean by risk? Public perception versus scientific assessment Gary Barker IFR, Norwich.

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Presentation on theme: "Institute of Food Research What do ‘we’ mean by risk? Public perception versus scientific assessment Gary Barker IFR, Norwich."— Presentation transcript:

1 Institute of Food Research What do ‘we’ mean by risk? Public perception versus scientific assessment Gary Barker IFR, Norwich

2 Preamble – two views At IFR the Consumer Science group is interested in consumers’ attitudes and behaviours towards food and food risks At IFR the Quantitative Risk Assessment group is interested in the identification of food borne hazards and the mathematical evaluation of food risks These two groups don’t always agree!

3 Why two views - what is the truth about risk? Risk is a four letter word Risk is the second most common word used in newspaper headlines

4 Why two views - what is risky about food?

5 Contemporary Example: Growing GM crops commercially in the UK Recent scientific review has concluded risks are minimal HOWEVER there is evidence of great public concern (public perceives risks as greater – in UK and EC) EC now imposes lots of regulations and barriers to growth of GM Even if crops were widely grown, selling GM food in the UK might prove commercially unviable Public ultimately have the power!

6 Public concerns about food safety

7 How do ‘scientists’ consider risks? Risk Analysis has a paradigm! – (Codex alimentarius) Risk assessment (quantitative assessment of risks of human harm from an identified hazard) Risk management (considering alternative policy courses and choosing appropriate option) Risk communication (communicating information about risks to appropriate stakeholders, including consumers) … communication, analysis, management, communication, analysis management, communication, analysis management, communication, analysis management, communication, analysis management, communication, analysis management, communication

8 Making an assessment - quantifying risk? “We don’t know everything so we can’t say anything” Make a list … the problem with complexity Solve some equations … the problem with uncertainty Wave your hands … representing complex beliefs Risk ≈ Frequency x Damage

9 Why do we evaluate risk? Decisions, Decisions … Risk assessment as a decision support process –Supporting intervention, resource allocation and communications Risk assessment for identification, evaluation and appreciation of uncertainties –Converting knowables to knowns –Uncertainties are an essential part of communications

10 Uncertainty sometimes dominates scientific risk assessment

11 Another view - Key points There is functional separation of ‘assessment’ and ‘management’ i.e. conducted by different people (intended to be fairer) Emphasis is on quantifying risks to human health (e.g. no consideration of aspects like environment, economics) Communication seen as essentially a one-way process: scientists find out the answers, policy makers use this to make the decision, then consumers are told the solutions… and expected to believe them and behave accordingly

12 Another view - perceived risks? ‘Laypersons’ tend to perceive risks as greater than ‘experts’, for a variety of potential hazards, e.g. chemical, ecological/environmental, nuclear waste All people are different and evaluate the risks against different sets of prior experiences – risk is relative! Research is very difficult to control: different methods find other factors impacting risk perception People use scales beyond frequency and damage : familiarity, dread, control etc.

13 Assessing Perception of Food Hazards Saturated Fats Sugar Salmonella C. botulinum BSE Pesticide Residues Hormone Residues Genetically Altered Nitrates Colouring Organic Produce UNFAMILIAR NOT DREADED FAMILIAR DREADED Fife-Schaw and Rowe (2000)

14 Another view : Are consumers wrong, or simply misunderstood? There ARE cognitive limitations that affect how we judge risks e.g.: - over-estimation of small numbers - optimistic bias - availability heuristic (powerful/visual images easier to recall have greater impact) -

15 Risk Communication Rationale If the public have different risk perceptions to the scientifically informed position, AND this difference is due IN PART to misinformation, this IMPLIES a need to communicate appropriate information to the public The ‘deficit model’ essentially assumes perceptions largely (entirely) due to lack of knowledge - the aim of RC thus to convince (unknowledgeable) public of ‘real’ risks according to expert assessment A more enlightened view acknowledges scientific uncertainty in the official position, and the relevance of values, and sees the role of RC as providing consumers with the information necessary to enable them to make informed decisions

16 Risk Communication Research Regardless of philosophy, the idea is we need to find the right presentational manner in order to PERSUADE/ INFORM the public Research has attempted to find the magic presentational formula to do this e.g. using risk scales, comparing graphical vs numerical vs non-numerical information –Asymmetric communication However, generally RC not very successful. Why are the public not convinced about the safety of GM foods and crops?

17 Risk communication?

18 Engagement and participation is a strong way forwards ‘Public engagement’ as a new paradigm: a way to counter distrust, and to admit public values i.e. don’t just communicate at public, but also collect views and hold debates Methods used include use of workshops, conferences, ‘citizens’ juries’, web events …

19 Estimate of infection rates (chicken & pathogenic bacteria) In the UK approximately 4 x 10 5 cases of food borne illness per year are associated with chicken consumption (HPA, EID 2005) In the UK there are about 4 x 10 9 chicken servings per year (about 100 each) (FSA NDNS 2005) In the UK about 1 in 10000 servings of chicken leads to infection Food poisoning from chicken is a once in a lifetime event?

20 In the UK in 2008 food is safe

21 Two views of risks - questions raised The current assessment system is strong but difficult to develop Public perceive risks in a complex manner Risk Management needs to take this into account, because the public (consumers) hold much power ‘Effective’ risk communication is not simply a case of presenting ‘facts’ to public and convincing them Before communication, it’s important to understand what people know and what they want to know The ‘public engagement’ paradigm is one possible solution (response to public lack of knowledge and lack of trust?), but its ‘effectiveness’ is uncertain There are many research questions still to answer!


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