Byrne cuts through the fear factor

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Risk

Our response to food safety is often inconsistent and completely
irrational. This was the message of European Commissioner for
health and consumer protection David Byrne at yesterday's public
debate and policy making conference in Brussels. Entitled
Irrational Fears or Legitimate Concerns - Risk Perception in
Perspective Risk Perception, the meeting covered every aspect
of the food safety debate.

"The subject of food safety has risen markedly in the public consciousness over recent years triggered by a spate of food crises and food scares,"​ said Byrne. "Public concern over the safety of food is at an all time high. Take antibiotic and other residues for example. Public pressure calls for ever lower levels of residues which might pose a risk to public health."

But Byrne pointed out that salmonella poisoning alone leads, at a conservative estimate, to 200 deaths each year across the EU and some 160,000 cases of illness. "Something seems wrong here,"​ he said. "Something doesn't quite add up. We may shun low risk situations whilst embracing those with higher risk. Why should this be so? Are we dealing with irrational fears or legitimate concerns?"

Nonetheless, Byrne believed that the subject of risk was beginning to come of age. There has been a growing recognition over the past 15 years of the importance of proper risk analysis and increasing interest in how this can be best used in relation to governance.

"It is no accident that the influences bearing on European democracies have shown a marked shift in recent years with the rise of the stakeholder society. At a time when interest and involvement in politics at citizen level appears to be receding across many EU countries, strenuous and significant efforts have been and are continuing to be made to engage citizens in the processes and decisions which ultimately affect them."

Byrne said that the role and influence of science in shaping public attitudes to risk was another area that needs proper study. "The scientific community is often viewed as being remote from people. In the pursuit of scientific progress it is vital that the link between science and society is strengthened,"​ he said.

The role of civil society and non-governmental organisations is also significant. "Clearly NGOs have an important role to play in the political process but in some cases their influence can be, or can be perceived to be, disproportionate, not to mention downright opportunistic,"​ said Byrne.

"Why is it for example that some NGOs and pressure groups seem to attract more public trust than governments despite the fact that governments are elected by citizens, and ultimately, accountable for the result of their actions?"

Bryne also discussed the role of the media. He used the example of this year's SARS episode to illustrate how distortions can arise. "The SARS situation was a classic case of the sudden and dramatic arrival of a risk of unknown quantity. But most of the information that the public received about SARS came, of course, via the media. Misery reporting or dread news attracts audience interest and enhances the marketability of news. 'Killer bug threatens millions' is an arresting headline which can trigger public alarm and even panic in a manner which might be quite disproportionate to the actual risk in question."

Interestingly, the subject of SARS dropped out of the media spotlight almost as quickly as it emerged. Thus, Byrne suggested, the issue for public authorities is how to transmit clear and accurate risk messages against the backdrop of some sections of the media apparently intent on maximising hysteria and building up and maintaining the story.

Another example is of course BSE in Europe. One of the aftershock effects of the UK government's announcement of a possible link between BSE and new variant CJD in 1996 was a fragmentation of messages right across Europe which led to chaos, confusion and a meltdown in public confidence which, according to Byrne, went far beyond the question of beef from just one Member State. The beef market collapsed, and people felt they had been misled.

When stringent measures were introduced to close off the possibility of infected meat entering the food chain public confidence in beef gradually began to return. And when the UK government placed a ban on beef on the bone in response to what was regarded then as a potentially small risk, many UK citizens felt this was a step too far. There was even frantic buying of remaining beef stocks before the ban came into effect.

"The clear lesson is that a transparent and consistent approach to risk communication is vital in gaining and maintaining public confidence and trust,"​ said Byrne.

Nonetheless, he remains positive of the progress being made. The establishment of food safety agencies in many Member States in recent years has created a credible and visible independence from governmental structures, helping to bolster public acceptance and confidence.

"And of course at European level, we now have established the European Food Safety Authority,"​ he said. "One of the key features of EFSA is its independence its capacity to inform and advise, free from political interference or industry influence. I sincerely hope it will prove to be a major breakthrough in improving the relationship between public institutions and European citizens."

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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