And consumer response to new food technologies such as nanotechnology, irradiation and novel food processes including pulsed light techniques and high pressure processing are frequently driven by emotions rather than facts, claims a newly published review of existing literature from the UK food safety agency.
The aim of the review, said FSA, was to assess research published online since 1999 from the UK and beyond in order to evaluate public opinion on the technologies, the factors that shape consumer views in this regard and how those views affect food choices.
However, the food safety body noted gaps in the available research, concluding that while a large body of evidence is available on public attitudes to GM foods, evidence of consumer perception of the other technologies is a lot more limited.
Based on the data collated, the findings show that consumers, in general, are wary when they are not sure about the benefits and risks of an application.
However the report also found that “food technologies tended not to be a burning issue for the vast majority of people and often did not generate strong opinions.”
Meanwhile, the technology with the lowest level of consumer understanding was irradiation, claims the review.
“Given a lack of knowledge about emerging food technologies, people seem to rely on their pre-existing knowledge and values to form judgements about the technologies they are questioned on,” stated the author.
The review also highlighted that the media, government and industry tend to be the least trusted sources of information about emerging food technologies, with consumers particularly sceptical about the motives of big business.
“Trust in these institutions does vary according to location. US consumers, for example, have higher levels of trust in their regulator than European consumers,” claims the review.
In addition, the study concludes that women and older people have been found to have the highest levels of concern about emerging processing techniques, but the report stressed that personality characteristics such as attitudes towards technology in general, attitudes towards health and nutrition and cultural values are better predictors of attitudes than demographic characteristics.
The findings also show that attitudes towards novel food processes interact with other considerations such as price and taste when people make food purchasing decisions – while price, for example, may be the top priority for one person, for someone else concern over a processing method may overcome cost considerations.
“At the same time, attitudes towards a processing method have been shown to influence people’s expectations of whether or not they will like the taste of a product processed using that method,” concludes the study.
The agency said the findings will help to shape the direction of its work with government departments and the European Commission in relation to assessing new information and potential hazards associated with the future use of these technologies in the food sector.
According to FSA, a yearly or six monthly tracker survey on public attitudes to these technologies should be implemented to gauge how consumer reaction might change over time.
In addition, as many of the studies the agency looked at were based on small samples from quite narrow populations and tended not to combine qualitative and quantitative research, the safety body said that further testing should be carried out with nationally representative populations, with the results of this then combined with new qualitative research.
It also called for new field experiments to further research in the area of consumer purchasing behaviour.
The FSA review can be downloaded here.