Policy-makers should adopt a proactive approach to communication on new food technologies, with stakeholder forums and public consultation in order to tackle consumer issues early on, says a new paper.
The development of new technologies in recent decades has led to great debate on the best approach to risk/benefit communication. Industry is eager to avoid mistakes made in the introduction of genetically modified foods in Europe in the 1990s, where consumer suspicion is keen.
A new paper accepted for publication in the journal Trends in Food Science and Technology shows that there are a number of factors influencing consumer attitudes and acceptance of new technologies, such as perceived risks and benefits, knowledge, provision of information, trust, and socio-demographic factors.
But there are some steps can be taken to build acceptance even as scientists are still seeking to understand the full workings and implications of technologies proposed for food chain entry.
Josephine Wills of the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) and co-authors point out that in the past the public was seen as a passive receiver of risk-benefit information. Now, however, it is recognised that there should be a process of information exchange amongst all stakeholders.
The paper looks particularly at food irradiation, GMOs, animal cloning, nutrigenomics and nanotechnology, mapping current awareness and attitudes to each.
Wills and colleagues point out that these embody complex concepts, and “without a serious communication effort, these innovations could face a negative public reaction”.
Increased communication early on, and involvement of end-users, could contribute to transparency in decision-making and trust in public authorities, as well as the possibility of market success – but given the complexity of food risk communication “no single set of recommendations can suit all situations”.
Channels and risk mitigation
The authors suggest that a number of different channels and methods should be used to generate dialogue, including websites, festivals, exhibitions and commercialisation-like techniques.
They also say effective communication should highlight what has been done to mitigate risks, with information on risk control measures, food safety laws and regulations.
It has also been suggested that drawing attention to tangible consumer benefits of a new technology may increase purchase intention in the face of scepticism – but at the same time, perceived naturalness of foods and processing methods are well regarded by consumers, and tend to be used in advertising materials.
Wills and colleague speculate that scepticism towards emerging food technologies may make food companies reluctant to communicate any messages that may provoke negative attitudes, but they write “the roll of marketing and advertising in communication strategies for novel food technologies seems to be unexplored”.
Trends in Food Science & Technology, online ahead of print
Consumers and new food technologies
Authors: Fanny Rollin, Jean Kennedy, Josephine Wills