Risk management and transparency

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Consumer risk perceptions differ from those held by other stakeholders involved in food production and risk analysis. It has been well established that people's risk perceptions determine how they react to different hazards. Some factors (for example, whether a hazard is voluntary in terms of exposure or technological in origin) predict people's responses across different hazard domains (i.e. the extent to which risk is perceived to be involuntary increases the threat perception for all kinds of hazards). Other factors are domain specific (for example, people may have concerns about the potential for negative effects on animal welfare in the case of BSE, concerns that will not apply to other types of potential hazard such as food irradiation).

Psychological factors are important in influencing people's responses to a particular hazard. The technical risk estimates traditionally provided by experts have little influence on people's behaviours and responses. In comparison, people's risk perceptions are a far more influential determinant of their responses to different risks. For example, a risk that people perceive to be involuntary in terms of their personal exposure is more threatening than one that they choose to take, even if the probability of harm is the same, or possibly even less. For similar reasons, naturally occurring risks are less threatening than hazards that are technological in origin. Natural risks (for example, being struck by lightning) are perceived as less frightening than other equivalent risks that are technological in origin. People fear potentially catastrophic hazards more than those that affect a similar number of people, but at different times and places (Slovic, 1993; Katsuya 2001). Other concerns are very specific to particular hazard domains, and this is very much the case in relation to food (for example, see Miles and Frewer, 2001).

Public risk perceptions have been shown to be particularly important determinants of public responses to activities in the agri-food area. These include food safety (Fife-Schaw and Rowe, 2000; Verbeke, 2001), the biosciences, (Frewer et al., 1997), and the possible unintended negative environmental and health impacts of technology (Levidow and Marris, 2001). All of these examples reflect the observation that public risk perception has been driven by the failure to provide information relevant to the actual concerns of consumers, and instead providing information that focused on the technical risk estimates derived from expert knowledge.

It should also be remembered that food choice is as much a cultural, social and emotional process as it is a rational choice, and the purchase of products perceived as recycled waste may be problematic in terms of perceived quality reduction. Consumers also demand the enforcement of effective traceability systems and, as a consequence, are likely to demand the introduction of utilitarian labelling strategies focusing on both sustainabil-ity and food production. Consumer perceptions that food-waste recycling is occurring in a non-transparent manner may compromise acceptability of the resultant products, particularly in the food sector. Potentially negative emotional responses regarding the consumption of food waste may also be problematic. Finally, consumers are not homogeneous with respect to their attitudes, perceptions, and food choices, and what is acceptable or desirable to some consumers may be viewed negatively by others. It is important, therefore, to ensure that consumers are able to choose whether or not to eat foods produced using particular technologies or addressing some other agenda (for example, sustainable production).

It is useful to consider the example of the BSE scare in the context of by-product recycling, as it has had a potential impact on consumer acceptance of other attempts to recycle food waste. Miles and Frewer (2001) have noted that public risk perceptions associated with the BSE crisis were driven by the failure of government and the industry to provide information relevant to the actual concerns of consumers. BSE-related risk communication was based on technical risk assessments, ignoring key issues of concern to the public. These included worry about animal welfare and effective communication regarding risk uncertainty. The latter was particularly salient given that consumers perceived that uncertainty regarding the risks of BSE was being hidden by the authorities prior to 1996 in order to protect their own interests, and those of industry. Other consumer concerns focused on the use of technology in food production per se (for example, technology applied to animal husbandry), and the potential that unintended effects associated with the application of these processes could occur. Frewer and Salter (2002) observe that, as a consequence of the BSE scare, the decline in the public's trust in science has passed a 'threshold point' where the legitimacy of scientific judgement is questioned. The rise of 'consumer citizens' (who express informed choice via purchase behaviours), combined with the diminished role of the 'expert' as a consequence of wide availability of specialist information through the Internet, means that simply explaining that a product is safe and sustainable will not result in successful commercialisation. In addition, research must be conducted to prevent product developers misunderstanding consumer preferences regarding novel product development.

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