Keywords: Risk, Communication, BSE, Genetic modification, Authenticity, Contamination.
The confidence that the public has in the food supply is of paramount importance in influencing what it chooses to eat and from where it will purchase its food. There have been many examples of how perceived food concerns have significantly changed the buying habits of consumers, e.g. the initial effect of BSE on beef sales. These changes have resulted in well-established markets being eroded and have given opportunities for new products or practices to be introduced which satisfy consumer demand. The increasing influence of the consumer on the marketplace is reflected in the trends in new product development and changes in food production methods.
The consumer is becoming evermore demanding in respect of food availability, quality, safety, price, and the social and environmental aspects of its production. This, together with the demand for greater convenience and reduction of food production skills in the home, has had the effect of distancing food production from the consumer. This distance is sometimes misconstrued as secrecy or, at best, lack of openness; it provides the ideal conditions for concern and mistrust to develop.
The way that the public perceives risk is highly complex. Many studies have compared the public perception of risk with actual risk, and significant differences are commonly found. It is, however, what is perceived that is important — whether it has a foundation in reality or not — because it is beliefs and perceptions that form the basis of most consumer decisions. Certain factors are well recognised that trigger specific fear in the eyes of the public and attract the interest of the media. In turn the media plays a major part in setting the agenda for public concerns. Studies have shown that, although the public does evaluate and balance information from various sources, it obtains most of its information from the media.
In order to culture maximum public confidence in food quality and safety, and in the application of fertilisers to crops, certain key rules need to be followed. These include identifying clear benefits to the consumer in terms of quality and/or the environment; developing the most effective controls and safeguards to ensure food safety and quality; identifying and communicating the technical issues, concerns and safeguards in a clear and open way; being proactive in raising issues; and having a policy of constant review and communication.
M.N. Hall and J.L. Jones, Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association, UK
28 pages, 2 tables, 4 figures, 42 refs.