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The role of prior knowledge and associations


Often, when a risk is communicated in relation to a food product, consumers wonder if other products are affected. In order to achieve an effective risk communication, communicators need to understand why people associate apparently unrelated risks, and what roles consumers’ prior knowledge and contextually available information play in this. For example, when judging the risk of food irradiation, people can take into consideration other risks associated with food contamination, such as risks of food poisoning. Therefore, it is important to understand why sometimes people experience risk perceptions for foods other than those which were the original focus of the risk communication.

Sometimes, when a product is associated with risk, consumers develop a negative view of the product that comes to dominate their perceptions of it; in other words, consumers attach a ‘stigma’ to that product. For example, in the UK beef was a long time associated with the BSE crisis. However this stigma can spread to other products which are not involved but associated with the initially affected process (for example the link of the whole meat sector in the UK to the BSE crisis). More recently, the EHEC crisis in Germany from 2011 illustrated that risk associations can spread to other products, countries and industries. At a certain point, Russia banned the import of all vegetables from Europe.

Food benefit communication can also be linked to associations. A halo effect is the opposite of a stigma and refers to the fact that consumers might associate a product with positive but unwarranted attributes. For example, organic products might be judged as lower-calorie to the extent that perceivers hold favourable attitudes toward organic production. Because natural foods tend to be seen as inherently good and healthy (Rozin et al., 2004), the “organic” halo seem plausible given the back-to-nature connotations of organic production. The tendency to overgeneralize health claims is another example of the health halos. Previous research has demonstrated that margarine advertised as “no cholesterol” and “healthy” is also judged as lower in fat.



The following elements can play a role in associations:

Transference of risk perception from one contaminated product to another may occur when presented together.

In other words, reporting that there is risk for one contaminated product and mentioning other products from the same category along with it might lead to unnecessary perceptions of risk from the other unaffected products. This can happen explicitly (e.g. mentioning other products within the same message/official report) or implicitly (e.g. showing the products together in the same image/video; communicating a written message with a photograph showing other products; etc.). One example of the former would be communicating the following: “Analysis show that contamination with E.coli has been found for a sample of cucumbers and we are uncertain if other vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes are affected”. Risk communicators need to be aware of the possibility that risk messages about typical, widely consumed foods (e.g. cod) are more likely to unintentionally lead to risk associations among other widely consumed items (e.g. tuna, haddock) than less widely consumed foods (e.g. tilapia). This process may explain the amplification of risk in the wake for the German EHEC outbreak from May 2011.


The history associated with one product might have an influence on the associations it has with other products/categories

Not all food products are “born equal”. This means that communicators should be careful in presenting products that have been stigmatized in the past (e.g. reported as presenting a hazard in the media) along with products perceived as safe or at least not explicitly associated with a hazard.


Personal stories are more vivid than statistical descriptions and may lead to higher risk perceptions

Risk communicators might consider using thematic ( stories using numbers or statistics) instead of episodic frames when needing to attenuate a specific risk message and limit the scope for potential risk associations. Episodic frames which focus on individual cases can lead to greater risk perceptions as people are more likely to empathise and identify with a person than with numerical descriptions. However, personal stories could be used when risk perception needs to be amplified so as to motivate people to engage in preventive behaviours, for example, when pointing out the risks of high red meat consumption.

However, in situations where statistical information is used to communicate a food risk or benefit, communicators may need to be aware that not all consumers are highly numerate and not all are able to understand statistical information. Studies have found for example that frequency formats (e.g. ‘13 out of 100’) increase risk perceptions over percentage formats (‘13 per cent’) for less numerate people.


Communicators should take into account the history of a product or product category when a risk is communicated

FamFamiliarity or awareness of a brand or product is able to influence not only the willingness to buy that product, but also the perception of a product in the wake of an incident or after a risk communication. For example, organic products found to pose food risks are likely to cause more outrage and loss of confidence among consumers than non-organic products because consumers have higher expectations from organic than from non-organic foods.

Communicators need to understand why people associate apparently unrelated risks.