Risk perception - facts, fear and food

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Related tags: Government

With serendipitous coincidence, in the same week that the European
Food Safety Authority delivers its hotly awaited first opinion on a
GMO, bureaucrats and stakeholders have gathered in Brussels under
the aegis of the Commission to discuss risk perception. Will the
findings shape future policy, public debate and risk communication?

Learning from immediate European history - notably BSE outbreaks in the UK and Germany - politicians and industry players now have to hit the right balance between giving 'the facts' without sounding alarmist or complacent.

Opening the conference yesterday European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne focussed on five broad factors that he believed influenced society's relationship to matters of risk - governance, science, society, culture, and media. An overarching theme in the talks of other speakers during the course of the morning, Byrne stressed the need for public trust.

"The relationship between governments and public institutions and broader society touch the important issue of public trust,"​ he said. 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, he added.

Turning to science, Byrne confirmed the Commission's line that policy formation should be underpinned by reliable science. But there lies a potential problem.

"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.

If science is perceived to exist in a bubble, isolated from society, serving its own academic and financial interests rather than engaging with society, or speaking a language incomprehensible to the general public, mistrust and suspicion will inevitably follow,"​ commented Byrne.

So on to the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations. 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 the Commisioner.

Linking back to the first 'factor' Byrne questioned why 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. Participants in the debate will be eager to learn of possible reasons for this situation. What is the key to public trust?

Discussing culture, Byrne claimed that cultural factors `clearly have an influence on the perception of risk.'

"In relation to the GM debate it could be illuminating to explore the cultural differences which appear to exist between European and US citizens.

Are US citizens more trusting of their government structures and more confident that those institutions represent and protect their interests? Or are they perhaps less able than their European counterparts to influence government decisions?"

Throwing up the role of the media in the recent SARS episode when the world appeared to be on the brink of some unknown epidemic, Byrne asked a press conference at the event on Thursday: "Are you part of the problem?"

"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. SARS was a big story. Interestingly the subject of SARS dropped out of the media spotlight almost as quickly as it emerged."

For the Commissioner, the issue for public authorities is one of 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.`

The first such event organised by the Commission, strategies to handle risk perception will come under the spotlight over the next two days.

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