Efforts by the European Union to improve food safety and security appear to be winning the 'hearts and minds' of European citizens, according to a recent special Eurobarometer survey on risk issues related to food.
Nearly half of Europeans think the EU is doing enough in the area of food safety, although a significant percentage would like to see more EU action in the area, reported the survey, commissioned by the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and published in February 2006.
It gives food for thought to EU risk managers looking to strike a balance between citizens' expectations and what is attainable and sustainable. "Risk perception is a complex matter, influenced by many factors including culture, local conditions, personal experience, psychology and the media," notes Eurobarometer, the EU's public opinion gauge, about its recent offering.
It shows that citizens have a very good understanding of what is most likely to endanger them personally, such as environmental concerns (i.e. pesticide residues), car accidents and serious illness, including avian flu. But on food safety, no single problem was spontaneously identified by large groups of those canvassed.
Prompting, however, did reveal some concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), food additives and 'mad cow disease' (or BSE). A high percentage (at least 60%) of respondents in the 25 Member States surveyed were found to have a natural inclination to worry, it was revealed.
Out of control
In fact, 'worry' is an important pattern in the report, which runs more in line with cultural differences than particular perceptions of higher or lower food safety risk, and identifies certain groups in the community, such as women, as so-called 'worriers'.
A high proportion of EU citizens say they have heard about EU legislation. Awareness of warnings on cigarette packets, for example, is very high (85%), as too for consumer rights laws (66%) and food safety rules (61%). A further 58% say they are confident that policy-makers are au fait with the most recent food-related scientific information. Nearly two-thirds agree that EU food safety laws are strict enough, but less than half consider they are properly enforced.
Consumer groups, physicians and scientists are the most trusted sources of information on food risks, followed by the public authorities. There is high recognition of media stories regarding food but relatively low level of trust in the quality of the information obtained. "
[Whilst] Europeans indicate they are worried about health-related risks, those concerning food appear to be less salient. Overall, food has positive connotations of taste and pleasure; concerns regarding health and food safety are not top-of-mind," the report notes.
Confronted by potential food safety risks, consumers can identify various concerns but tend to worry most about those beyond their control. "Clearly identifiable groups are more liable to worry about risks than others, suggesting that in order to be effective, communication on risks may need to be tailored to meet specific needs of target audiences," the authors conclude.