Public underestimates risks posed by common pathogens

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety

The public's understanding of food risk issues is skewed towards
under estimating the danger from common pathogen contamination,
according to a research survey.

The survey results could help companies and experts develop communication strategies aimed at ensuring the public understands the various risks posed by food borne diseases and hazards.

The survey researchers concluded that food safety experts have a key role in communicating food risk and thus their perceptions will influence how food risk issues are communicated to the public.

The survey, published in the Journal of Food Safety, is based on the responses of 400 food safety experts in Ireland.

The survey asked them what they think about the public's understanding and knowledge of food risk issues, including factors such as what they think contribute to this knowledge as well as the gaps in understanding, and how they feel this could be rectified.

"Public perception of risk is very different from scientists' understanding of risk, hence the meaning and response to 'risk' differs between the public and scientists,"​ the researchers stated.

The vast majority of experts surveyed in the new study believed that the public should be most concerned about microbiological hazards such as E. coli, Campylobacter and Listeria. Experts thought that while the public has a fairly accurate idea of the risks associated with the well-known hazards, Salmonella and E. coli, they believe that they are considerably underestimating the risk associated with the lesser-known microbiological hazards, Listeria and Campylobacter.

This finding is a real cause for concern as Campylobacter in particular is both a common and increasing cause of food poisoning on the island of Ireland, the researchers stated.

In addition to underestimating certain risks, the experts are clearly of the opinion that the population on the island of Ireland are over-assessing certain other risks that are much less serious from a scientific point of view such as BSE and GMOs. There was a general feeling that the public reacts more to novel risks rather than to established ones, they stated.

They noted that the level of education and age were important determinants for the level of understanding of risk issues and messages, but also were of the view that the media tend to communicate information that is misleading.

The experts surveyed suggested that early intervention via school curricula is the best method to improve understanding of food risk messages in the long term. Because the media has the ability to improve awareness and knowledge on these issues, these experts would be interested in training on how to interact with the media.

"The findings indicate that most experts surveyed have little confidence in the public's understanding of food risk issues, their assessment of food risks, their ability to deal with scientific information and their food safety practices,"​ according to an abstract of the paper. "Experts are of the view that the public under-assesses the risk associated with some microbiological hazards and over-assesses the risk associated with other hazards such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy."

Successive food crises and a rising incidence of food poisoning throughout Europe, including the island of Ireland, have placed food safety clearly on the political agenda, the five researchers stated.

This elevation has been reflected at the EU-level in the creation of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and various national agencies, including the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK, the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland (FSANI), the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) and the all-island Food Safety Promotion Board (FSPB) of Ireland, a cross-border body set up following the Good Friday agreement.

The regulatory actions follow various scares that fueled public concern about food safety over the past 20 years. The impact of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has undermined public confidence and trust in the safety of food and in the food industry, as well as in the government's ability to adequately regulate, manage and communicate food safety risks.

In Ireland, Salmonella outbreaks increased six-fold from 1983 to 2000, and from 1996 to 1998 the reported cases of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 increased 10-fold, according to various studies.

In 2004, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) reported an increase in the occurrence of food poisoning cases because of E. coli and Campylobacter (FSAI 2004). In a study on acute gastroenteritis on the island of Ireland, it was concluded that there are an estimated 3.2 million episodes of acute gastroenteritis each year.

The reaction would suggest that the public makes decisions on food intake, food storage and food preparation that are less than ideal from a health and safety perspective, the researchers stated.

"It appears that in the public's mind "taking" a risk is of a completely different cognitive order than being subjected to a risk, even if these two poles are rarely clear-cut in reality,"​ they stated in quoting previous studies. "For example, in the case of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), recent research suggested that many people in the UK feel that biotechnology has been smuggled 'through the back door' without appropriate public consultation in the decision-making process."

In the case of the public fears raised by BSE, it appears to be mobilised not only by the threat of death, but by the degenerative nature of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), graphically illustrated by media images of stumbling livestock and vegetative humans.

The researchers were based at the University College Cork Ireland and the UK's University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Related topics Regulation & Safety

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