Consumer Confidence in Risk Analysis Practices regarding Novel and Conventional foods

Work package 4

"Consumer Confidence in Risk Analysis Practices regarding Novel and Conventional foods."

Over recent decades most Western European countries have witnessed growing public unease about the health and safety of modern methods of food production. European consumers now worry about an extensive range of food related issues, such as Salmonella, BSE, the use of agrochemicals in farming, genetic modification and food additives. In order to restore consumers’ confidence in food safety the SAFE FOODS project is designing a new Integrated Risk Analysis Approach for food. For this task, SAFE FOODS relies on the expertise of a dedicated team of both natural and social science researchers.

The social scientists in Work package 4 are developing knowledge regarding how consumers perceive food risk management, which factors influence trust in food safety and how these findings can contribute to the further improvement of consumer trust. In the following step, these results are integrated in the SAFE FOODS Risk Analysis model that is being developed by Work package 6.

Until recently there has been limited investigation of the factors influencing public perceptions of what constitutes best practice in risk management. Since SAFE FOODS aims to increase confidence in food risk management and the safety of food, a systematic understanding of what the consumers perceives to be best practice in risk management is crucial. At the same time this will help restore public trust in the agri-food sector and institutions.

Goals

  • To understand consumer perceptions, attitudes and beliefs regarding food risk management
  • To understand differences between consumers, experts and decision-makers regarding their perceptions of food risk management
  • To elaborate strategies for improved risk communication, especially in the specific case of risk uncertainty and risk variability
  • To facilitate and organise a feedback exercise on the effectiveness of the proposed SAFE FOODS risk analysis framework by SAFE FOODS participants and external stakeholders
  • To develop a gender policy for the SAFE FOODS project

Questions and progress

The consumer perception research performed by Work package 4 consists of 3 main parts using different methodologies, as shown in the figure below.

using different methodologies

1. Qualitative consumer research

Objectives

In a first step, social science researchers wanted to examine how key stakeholders perceive both the practice and effectiveness of food risk management.
The objective of this study was:

  1. To provide insight in a range of arguments used to evaluate food risk management practices
  2. To identify similarities and differences in perceptions held by consumers and experts with an interest in food safety.   

Approach

Initial research in Work package 4 used focus group studies and follow-up interviews to identify and understand which factors are important in the perception of the effectiveness of current food risk practices.

Research was conducted in five European countries: Denmark, Germany, Greece, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. In each of these countries, four focus groups were held in October and November 2004. In total, 108 participants took part, involving separate groups of food safety scientists, risk assessors, risk managers and consumers. 

In general, seven to ten people participated in each of these interactive discussion groups, developed to reveal participants’ viewpoints on a topic. In social science research, focus groups are preferred over personal interviews because of their interaction between participants since statements of one participant might generate comments by others.

After the focus group studies, the Work package 4 researchers phoned some of the participants for a follow-up interviews, to confront them with the viewpoints of the other groups.

Results

Results indicated that, whilst there are some similarities between consumers and experts regarding what constitutes good practice in food safety management, there are also differences that need to be addressed if consumer confidence in risk management is to be strengthened.

Both consumer and expert participants believed that good management involved the development and maintenance of systems of control over hazards, and that risk managers needed to be proactive in preventing the development of “food crises”. They also emphasised the importance of timely and appropriate risk communication.

Some differences in perceptions were also found. Expert participants were generally more positive about existing food risk management practices, although they did identify a number of shortcomings or constraints

Both consumers and experts believe that the amount of media attention plays an important role. Strikingly, only experts believe that the media is causing unnecessary worry among consumers. , The consumers themselves were generally more positive towards the role of the media as information source.   

In the follow-up interviews, the participants often tended to agree with the expressed views of other groups, although the actual reasons were sometimes completely different:

consumers and experts views

The results have been published by van Kleef et al. (2006) and Houghten et al. (2006). A poster overview of these results can be found at the upper right of this page.

The results provided input for the design of a larger questionnaire.

2. Quantitative consumer research: Consumer survey

Objective

The next step was to use the results from the qualitative phase to develop a questionnaire. The aim of this survey was to get a better insight into the psychological factors influencing consumer evaluations of food risk management practices. Furthermore, the international setup of this experiment would further allow to examine cross-cultural variations.

Approach

In the same five participating countries, a total of over 2500 respondents filled out the questionnaire. This sample of participants was representative in terms of gender, age and educational level. The survey was Internet-based, except in Slovenia, were a market research agency was doing phone interviews.

Results

This survey showed that consumers’ evaluations of food risk management practices are dependent on several factors, which are shown in the figure below:

key factors influencing consumer perceptions

From these results, practical recommendations can be formulated, which can immediately be applied in the area of food risk management. In relation to these issues, a paper entitled “Consumer Evaluations of Food Risk Management Quality in Europe” has been submitted.

For communication:

  • Provide the right consumers with the right information through the right source

For management:

  • Provide proactive communication about various factors inherent in risk management and risk assessment
  • Incorporate the views and opinions of all stakeholders in the process of risk analysis
  • Understand consumer concerns

3. Quantitative consumer research: Information experiments

Objective

Next, information experiments were carried out. The aim of these experiments is to examine the impact of communication about different types of food risk management on consumer confidence in food risk management. A particular goal is to assess whether improved communication about risk uncertainty and variability increases consumer confidence in risk analysis, and whether similar approaches to effective communication can be applied across different types of food hazards.

Approach

This experiment involved presenting three hypothetical scenarios that represent three potential hazards of particular interest to SAFE FOODS. These are:

  1. Mycotoxins presented as an emerging risk resulting from the introduction of low input production systems
  2. Combined exposure to pesticide residues
  3. The “Vitamin A Potato”, a genetically modified potato with possible health benefits in terms of increased delivery of beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A.

Four factors were changed (high and low levels) in each of the three predicted scenarios:

  1. Uncertainty
  2. Variability
  3. Systems of control
  4. Concern for consumer welfare

This survey was presented to 1600 respondents in Germany, Greece, Norway and the UK. Each participant was presented with one possible combination of each hazard.

Results

Analysis is still ongoing; the results will provide the knowledge for formulating risk communication strategies that will boost consumer confidence in food safety.

4. Case studies

Objective

In this research part, the Work package 4 partners from Germany, Greece, Norway and UK selected two food safety incidents, one of which resulted in a food safety “crisis” and one which resulted in little impact on public perception of the effectiveness of risk management practices.

The aim of this analysis is to check whether these past food incidents scored high or low on factors that are likely to increase consumer confidence, as identified from previous studies. Cross-cultural variation in terms of consumer confidence in risk management will also be assessed.

Approach

The selected cases are:

Food safety “crisis” Little impact on public perception
Germany BSE Nematodes (harmless parasite) in fish
Greece 1) PDB (paradichlorobenzene) in Honey 2) Mould growth in yoghurt Bird flu
Norway E. coli O103 in sheep fermented sausage PCBs and heavy metals in salmon
United Kingdom BSE Organochlorine in farmed salmon. Common examples are dioxin and DDT

Results

The analysis is still ongoing. The results will be used to further refine the recommendations for the development of the integrated risk analysis framework in Work package 6.

5. Stakeholder assessment of the new integrated risk analysis framework

Work package 4 will also test the feasibility and acceptability of the proposed framework, which is currently under development. Therefore, a stakeholder consultation will be conducted in order to identify potential barriers to implementing the new approach. The framework will be tested by professionals who are representatives for potential end-users. To ensure a well-structured feedback, a Delphi survey in several rounds, will be organised. The collected information will be summarised, interpreted and it will provide feedback for the further improvement of the SAFE FOODS model.  

6. Gender policy

SAFE FOODS recognises the importance of equal opportunities between women and men and has initiated activities to promote gender equality. Among others, a special webpage had been dedicated to the gender issue, also including interviews with several female SAFE FOODS researchers.

Furthermore, a headcount has been made in SAFE FOODS, revealing an overall sex ratio of 45% males and 55% females.

Finally, the gender issue is carefully taken into account in the research activities of the individual Work packages in SAFE FOODS. For example, Work package 4 is currently also exploring the gender dimension in their studies of consumer perceptions regarding food risk management practices.