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Risk perception and food safety: where do European consumers stand today?

A new Eurobarometer survey provides insights on consumers’ perception of health risks, and in particular those related to food safety. Overall, consumers’ perception of food is positive, food safety concerns are not top-of-mind and the role of public authorities in protecting consumer interests is valued.

February 26, 2006

For Europeans, food and eating are associated first and foremost with taste and pleasure. When consumers are asked what comes to mind in thinking about food only 1 out of 5 mentions health; furthermore, concerns regarding possible risks or disease are hardly mentioned at all spontaneously. When consumers are asked, more specifically, to cite any possible problems or risks associated with food, no single issue emerges for the majority of respondents. Major food crises of the past such as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) do not seem to be top-of-mind today. In fact, few respondents (less than 1 out of 5) identify food safety issues spontaneously: amongst these, food poisoning comes to mind most often, followed by chemicals, pesticides and toxic substances and obesity.

When consumers are further confronted with a list of possible risks associated with food, concerns appear to be more widespread. Consumers tend to worry most about risks caused by external factors over which they have little or no control. One finds at the top end of the “worry” scale (over 60% of respondents) concerns regarding: pesticide residues, new viruses (such as avian influenza), residues in meats, food hygiene (outside the home) and contamination of food by bacteria. Consumers appear to be less worried about risks possibly associated with their own behavior or practices. It is interesting to note that whilst obesity is mentioned spontaneously as a possible risk associated with food (albeit by few consumers), few appear to be worried about putting on weight themselves (the latter is ranked amongst the lowest items in the “worry” scale).

A significant proportion of consumers interviewed (61%) is aware of EU regulations on food safety, which in terms of awareness rank third after those relating to smoking (85%) and consumers’ rights (66%). A majority of EU citizens (54%) agrees that public authorities take citizens’ concerns about health risks very seriously although some skepticism exists regarding the prioritization of consumer health with respect to commercial interests. Close to 6 out of 10 consider that public authorities take into account the most recent scientific evidence when taking decisions related to food risks and nearly 1 in 2 commend their role in informing citizens about food-related risks.

Has food safety improved over the last 10 years? Public opinion remains divided: 38% of respondents state that the situation has improved; 29% that it has stayed the same; and 28% that we are now worse off than before. Whilst perspectives differ on progresses made in food safety in the EU, nearly 1 citizen in 2 considers that public authorities’ actions with regard to food safety risks are appropriate.

The extent to which people are concerned about food safety is related to the way in which they react to media coverage of food-related issues. Although only 13% of the people surveyed recall media coverage on food-related health risks compared to smoking, obesity and alcohol, 1 out of 2 respondents indicate that they have changed their eating habits as a result. However, over 40% of people either ignore stories they hear in the media about a type of food being unsafe or bad for health or worry and do nothing. This is an important finding for risk communications, notably with respect to the role of the media in raising public awareness and motivating dietary change.

In line with previous research findings, respondents identify that consumer groups (32%), physicians or doctors (also 32%) and scientists (30%) are the most trusted information sources regarding serious food risks ahead of public authorities (22%) and media (17%). Economic operators (food manufacturers, farmers and retailers) are cited as being amongst the least trusted sources.

This survey was conducted in the twenty-five Member States of the European Union by way of face-to-face interviews in people’s homes in their national language between 2 September and 6 October 2005. The methodology used is that of the Standard Eurobarometer polls managed by the European Commission Directorate General Press and Communication.

The research was jointly commissioned by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General (DG SANCO).

The full Eurobarometer Report is available on the EFSA website at: http://www.efsa.eu.int/about_efsa/communicating_risk/risk_perception/catindex_en.html

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