Consumers underestimate risk of ‘natural’ contaminants

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

 © iStock
© iStock

Related tags Risk

German consumers are more concerned about the risk presented by ‘synthetic’ contaminants than those that naturally occur in foods, a new study by the German safety authority finds.

According to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)’s latest study on risk perception, most German consumers regard food contaminants as a high health risk. Just under 60% of the German population view undesirable substances in food as a “high”​ or “very high”​ risk to health.

The investigation, published in the public health journal Bundesgesundheitsblatt - Gesundheitsforschung – Gesundheitsschutz​, concluded that the most well-known of these contaminants are mercury compounds and dioxins. According to the survey, 78% of Germans are aware of the threat presented by mercury in fish, while 70% are aware of dioxins in eggs or milk.

However, only 13% of respondents had even heard of natural contaminants pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can be found in products like honey or tea. Only around one in three of those who have heard of PAs believe these substances pose a “significant”​ health risk.

Meanwhile, just over one-quarter of people – 26% - identified arsenic in rice and rice products, with 57% of this group seeing the substance as posing a “significant”​ risk to health

"People feel most at risk from synthetic substances and heavy metals,"​ said BfR president Dr Andreas Hensel. "Appropriate risk communication on contaminants should take this subjective risk perception into account."

The BfR said that contaminants are defined as “undesirable substances”​ that unintentionally enter the food chain. However, they can occur naturally in the environment and in the processing or raw materials into food products as well as entering the food chain as a consequence of human activity.

Demographic divide

The representative population survey used computer-assisted telephone calls to collect the responses of 1,001 people on the issue of contaminants in food products.

General attitudes towards contaminants in food and the assessment of potential health risks are also shaped by demographic factors, the researchers concluded. For example, men rate the risks of undesirable substances in barbecued meat lower than women.

Younger people feel less well informed on the issue of contaminant risk: 41% of 14 to 29 year-olds say they are “poorly”​ or “very poorly”​ informed compared to just 15% of those above the age of 60. People who identify themselves as “well-informed”​ are more likely to be interested in information on possible protective measures, legal regulations and affected product groups.

“When it comes to communicating health risks, the main challenge is therefore to raise awareness levels for this topic among the less well-informed population groups,”​ the BfR noted.

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