What to evaluate
Decision-making on food risk and benefit communications cannot be made into an exact science, and judgements need to be made, but a thorough and systematic consideration of all possible relevant factors that can help in making that judgement more informed. This section is partly based on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) document "When food is cooking up a storm".
Nature of the hazard
Hazards can take many different forms and, in relation to food safety, may include: substances, products, processes, technologies and conditions. The type of hazard will have an influence on what is needed in terms of communications, particularly as certain hazards/substances may elicit a subjective fear factor, for example when something is artificially added to food as opposed to occurring naturally.
Broadly speaking, two causal categories of risks exist: technological and natural. Humans feel more comfortable with threats that can be predicted, foreseen, prepared and planned for, and thus the degree of risk perceived by humans to technological risks is substantially heightened by its unpredictability. In contrast, although natural disasters tend to share the same unpredictable characteristics as their technological counterparts, the risk from such events is not perceived as fatal, but as fate. The perceived risk from a natural hazard is therefore lower than the perceived risk from a technological one.
Level of risk
At this stage it is important to note the difference between hazard and risk. Often incorrectly thought to be synonyms, a hazard stems from the ability of an organism or substance to cause an adverse effect. Risk, by comparison, is the likelihood that such adverse effects will occur taking into account possible exposure to the hazard in question.
EFSA has narrowed the level of risk down to five simple categories from a communications point of view:
Level of uncertainty
It is not always possible to be clear about a risk. Where there is uncertainty it should be acknowledged and described, such as outlining any data gaps or issues relating to methodology. What is being done to address the areas of uncertainty is also important so that the intended audience can understand what steps are being taken and offer reassurance that uncertainty is being addressed. Remember: Confused consumers can become angry, worried, cynical, or disengaged consumers!
Often the public can become confused by the communication of scientifically uncertain information. Sometimes there is not enough information about a risk, sometimes there is no confirmation of the scientific evidence of a risk.
Another element is the perceived contradictory or conflicting messages. Consumers perceive that experts tend to frequently change their messages or advice about risks and benefits. This is especially true in more chronic communications relating to one’s daily lifestyle and nutrition. Conflicting risk communication messages that come from the same source or expert over time has an effect of heightening uncertainty about a risk. However, dealing with conflicting and contradictory messages isn’t always simple, sometimes your messages can conflict with other external stakeholders, or your messages can be picked up my media in such a way that they will phrase them as contradictory.
Who/what is affected
Who or what is affected by the hazard or risk can also have an impact on risk perception and this, in turn, affects the targeting of communications in relation to appropriate audiences and communications channels. For example, it is possible to be more focussed with communications targeting a particular at-risk group than with communications for an unknown audience. Also, when certain vulnerable groups are affected, such as children or babies, the media and stakeholder interest and concern are often heightened. The following categories have been identified as often relevant when considering likely levels of interest and possible targeting of communications approaches.
- General consumer
- Vulnerable groups
- Pregnant women
When making healthy food choices, consumers frequently need to make trade-offs between the risks and benefits associated with the consumption of food products. As a consequence, communication about both nutritional benefits and risk is required. It is not clear how this potentially conflicting information can best be communicated effectively. Consumers may face difficulties in balancing potential risks against health benefits related to consumption changes when faced with conflicting information about both risks and benefits.
A study in France tested risk-benefit messages made by the food safety agencies with relation to fish consumption for vulnerable groups and found that this information was perceived to be too complex and introduced confusion. The information didn’t result in the expected behaviour change, which suggests low efficacy as useful policy instrument.
A range of other factors can impact on how a risk is perceived and need to be taken into account when planning communications approaches. Here, coherent messages from communicators are key. The following have been identified as commonly increasing the sensitivity of the communications challenge. The substance/product/technology/evidence is:
- Subject of diverging scientific opinions
- Subject of diverging political opinions
- Subject of strong/diverging stakeholder opinion
- Of public concern
- Of low public concern yet risk is real
Level of communication required
An assessment of the factors impacting on possible communications approaches should inform decisionmaking about both levels and types of communications. A simple definition of levels of communications has been identified by EFSA, to provide a basic framework within which to place different communications approaches. The following levels of communication have been identified:
- Low-level public health impact/low public interest
- Low-level public health impact/high public interest
- Medium-level public health impact/medium public interest
- High-level public health impact/low public interest
- High-level public health impact/high public interest
When there is low impact or interest, a basic commitment to transparency and openness should still apply, for example with a risk assessment being published. When the impact or interest is likely to be high, wide ranging pro-active communications initiatives would need to be undertaken. For something between the two, some targeted pro-active activity may be appropriate.