Consumer negativity tends to be greater towards food related technological applications, as opposed to others such as medicine, said Lynn Frewer, Professor of Food & Society at Newcastle University.
However, Frewer told FoodNavigator.com: “There is evidence to suggest that consumers are likely to accept emerging technologies applied to food production if there are concrete and tangible personal (and to a lesser degree societal) benefits associated with products.
“People are intolerant of even very small risks if they perceive no benefit. ‘Designing’ products around consumer preferences is important, as well as identifying differences between consumers regarding these preferences in order to tailor products to specific consumer needs.”
She added that this would mean conducting research to understand what these different preferences and priorities actually are.
Frewer was among the speakers at the recent International Life Sciences Institute Europe’s 2012 Annual Symposium: “The 21st Century Food Chain”, which took place in Brussels at the end of March.
The focus was to provide an overview of todays’ food chain concerns, with topics including primary production and sourcing, processing technologies, food intake physiology and societal impact of food.
At the symposium, Frewer highlighted that consumer acceptance of emerging technologies needs to be understood early in product development, as perceived personal and societal benefit is relevant to their commercialisation. Although, this must be seen to outweigh personal and societal risks if consumers are to purchase novel products
Research has identified predictors of consumer rejection, according to the professor.
One example is risk perception (either applied to the individual or society) in terms of human health, environmental impact and negative socio-economic impacts.
Others are ethical concerns about the production process, perceptions that the product or the process used to make it are ‘unnatural’ and distrust in industry, scientists and regulators.
Frewer told FoodNavigator.com that lack of consumer acceptance has already been seen with GM foods and food irradiation, while the use of pesticides is also generating extensive public concern.
Now debate about consumer acceptance of nanotechnology and synthetic biology is occurring, although she added that it is not clear how these technologies will evolve.
However, Frewer said that most communication has been provided after public negativity towards a technology has occurred. As a result, communication has focused on the lack of risks, or product safety.
She added: “It would be a mistake for companies just to communicate about the benefits of a food technology as this would result in consumer distrust, as the company would be perceived to be promoting its own economic vested interests.”
The professor said that providing accurate information about risks, benefits, ethical issues and any uncertainties where these exist - and what is being done to reduce them - is more likely to generate consumer trust and confidence.