EFSA Press Release, 7 February 2006
A new Eurobarometer survey published today provides valuable insights on consumers' perception of health risks, and in particular those related to food safety. 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
This research was jointly commissioned by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General (DG SANCO). 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. Findings on consumers' most trusted information sources as well as their exposure and response to media coverage on food-related health issues can have important implications for the development of risk communications that effectively addresses and meets consumer needs and concerns.
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 behaviour 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 scepticism 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.
Understanding consumers' perception of risk is critical to providing timely, clear and effective communications regarding food safety. The Eurobarometer findings reconfirm the importance of developing and targeting messages to meet the needs of specific groups, utilising those information sources which consumers trust most. Commenting on the results of this first Eurobarometer on risk issues and their implications for risk communication, Anne-Laure Gassin, Director of Communications, EFSA affirmed: “In developing and disseminating messages on the results of its work, EFSA works closely with national food safety authorities, stakeholders and the European Commission. This collaboration is key to achieving our mission in risk communications. Such an approach is even more pertinent when communicating on food crises or in providing advice on nutrition and health where, depending on the situation, consumers may be either advised or requested by public authorities to take action and make personal dietary changes.”
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
Notes for editors: