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Strategies to communicate the emerging food safety risks in the most effective way

1/10/2013

Melanie De Vocht

Melanie De Vocht is Master in Communication Sciences (Ghent University, 2009). In 2010 she started a PhD study in which she investigates different communication strategies to communicate the emerging food safety risks in the most effective way.

Melanie De Vocht is awarded the Student Wildcard for the Belgian edition of the Fall 2013 Risk & Crisis Management Masterclass organised by PM, Inconnect and CIP Institute in Belgium and The Netherlands.

Introduction

Melanie De Vocht is PhD student on risk communication and food safety at Ghent University. Her PhD study is part of the European project Veg-i-Trade, which is an interdisciplinary project that examines the impact of climate change and globalization on the emerging risks for fresh produce. The project performs research concerning the economic structure of the fresh produce chain, and develops control measures to minimize microbiological and chemical risks.

Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy, daily diet. However, micro-organisms and contaminants are identified as possible hazards in fresh produce. Eating contaminated fresh produce can lead to illness, the development of cancer or in the worst case death. Even though some measures can be taken to eliminate the risks (e.g. washing hands before and after eating, thoroughly rinsing fresh produce, peeling fresh produce, and storing fresh produce at a cool temperature), the risk cannot completely be circumvented by consumers because of the absence of an adequate heat treatment. Consequently, personal control to avoid the risk from happening is low and consumers have to rely on the government and authorities to try to guarantee food safety, which stresses the role of trust in the government.

Trust is one of the key principles of effective risk communication, not only as the main goal of risk communication, but also as a mean to achieve other objectives such as raising awareness and behavioral adaptations. Furthermore, trust in authorities is vital when a risk turns into a crisis, and people need to follow up the advice provided by the authorities.

The question arises how these emerging food risks can be communicated to lay people, knowing that fresh produce is (correctly) perceived as healthy, and we do not want people to stop eating fresh produce. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that the people do not assess a risk in the same objective way as experts do based on risk assessment. Lay people rely on both their cognitive and affective evaluations of the risk, and carry out a subjective risk assessment in which emotions interfere with more objective criteria. The following research questions will be addressed.

Research questions

Studies

Different studies were carried out to investigate these research questions.

An experimental study with 128 participants showed that communicating the risks lead to lower negative feelings such as worry and fear than when no risk communication is provided. Furthermore, when respondents received a risk message before the crisis actually hits, the perceived responsibility for the crisis attributed to the government was much lower than when no risk communication was provided before the crisis. In the same line it was found that trust in the government was perceived higher when risk communication preceded the crisis situation.

To investigate whether risks should be communicated on a European or national level, a survey containing the same risk message was filled out by 864 respondents from Serbia, Norway, Belgium and Spain. The results showed many differences in reactions after reading the same risk message. Both cognitive and affective reactions differed, and the levels of trust in the government and subjective knowledge differed as well. This shows the need to adapt the risk message on a national level.

Different communication strategies were tested in two experimental studies. The first study (n=390) investigated the impact of the interaction of vividness (i.e. presenting the information in a very vivid or moderately way), two-sidedness (i.e. addressing only the risk or also the benefits), and the psychological distance (i.e. occurrence nearby or occurrence worldwide). It is advised to use two-sided messages, in combination with the very vividly presented information and the occurrence worldwide, to obtain the best outcomes.

The second study (n=192) with regard to communication strategies investigated the impact of the interaction of presentation order and the explicit mentioning or not of the low possibility to circumvent the risk from happening. The presentation order changed the sequence of mentioning the threatening information followed by the reassuring information, or the other way around. The results showed that the best outcomes were achieved when the threatening information was followed by the reassuring information, and the low level of control was explicitly mentioned.

Conclusions

Since consumers cannot completely avoid these fresh produce risks, increasing knowledge of emerging food safety hazards is important. To increase this knowledge, communication should explain in an honest, understandable, and accessible way the emerging hazard (the threat), what the government and food safety authorities are doing to provide safe food (the reassuring information), and what consumers can do (e.g., keep on eating fresh produces, rinse thoroughly) and cannot do (e.g., they cannot completely circumvent the risk when fresh produce is eaten raw). The role of government trust comes to the fore in these risks. It was shown that risk communication results in greater trust in the government and reduces perceived government responsibility for the crisis.


For more information about this research or Veg-i-Trade, please contact Melanie: or Twitter @melaniedevocht


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Veg-i-Trade is coordinated by the Department of Food Safety and Food Quality of Ghent University, the coordinator is Prof. ir. Mieke Uyttendaele. The supervisors of this PhD are Prof. Verolien Cauberghe (Department of Communication Sciences, Ghent University) and Prof. ir. Benedikt Sas (Department of Food Safety and Food Quality, Ghent University)

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