Thoughts on Food Risk Communication

Communication around issues of food risks has been a major task of food information associations around the world. Strategies borrowed from PR, demographic-based targeting, linear educational models, and use of ‘expert’ authorities and third party techniques are standard approaches to communicating food safety to diverse audiences. This article looks at some of the problems around food risk communication and proposes areas where revisions can help ensure messages have the desired effect.

A number of food information institutions have been formed with the mission of disseminating balanced, science-based educational material to promote “informed debate” and understand the risks around food safety in the same manner as ‘experts.’ Indeed, the use of the expert voice—authority figures presented as credible and trustworthy third parties—has underpinned communication efforts for decades. Such an approach may seem eminently sensible, but the peer-reviewed food risk communication literature has, since 1996, identified a number of issues over the efficacy of such a strategy.

First and perhaps foremost, there is a glaring discrepancy between food safety ‘experts’ and lay publics in their interpretations of the magnitude and probability of food risks. Experts on food hazards—scientists, dietitians, epidemiologists, food producers, authority figures from regulatory of advisory bodies—are widely perceived by those in industry to be ‘right’ and the public’s unease over food risks, epitomized by scandals even dating back to salmonella and BSE, and more recently melamine and botulism, to be excessive, irrational and simply ‘wrong.’  This discrepancy is significant in the strategic approach to food risk communication.

It has been inferred by food safety strategists that the root cause of the discrepancy was public ignorance. Publics arrive at their ill-informed assessments because they lack the expert’s knowledge and understanding of the issues. The aim of many informational campaigns is therefore to develop ways of encouraging publics to accept the ‘correct’ view of experts. It must be stressed that these efforts are endemic in many areas of the industry. However, this ‘knowledge deficit’ or ‘deficit model’ approach has no empirical support in communication or risk literature, yet continues to inform much of the work of scientific risk assessors, government policy makers and food producers.

What the deficit model fails to leave room to explore is the fact that experts tend to regard technical, factual and quantitative methods of risk measurement as the primary basis for risk assessment, control, and communication. Publics look beyond the technical data to include social, ethical, moral and economic issues as part of their assessment of food risks. If food safety campaigns do not take account of these worldviews, beliefs and interests, they will fail.

Failure to account for so-called ‘psychological or qualitative risk factors’ is the default position of many organizations. By and large their efforts fail to resonate with or engage consumers, leaving them with a distinct feeling of lack of empathy and alignment of interests, leading to perceptions of mistrust. Through various surveys, trust in experts, large business, and critically in regulators and other trust safeguards is on the decline. Deficit model approaches, typified by the linear delivery of advice and recommendations from scientific experts and ‘science-based’ associations, must be put aside in favour of more benevolent, insightful approaches that recognise a higher level of risk debate.

New strategies must demonstrate greater understanding of consumer perceptions around food risks and consumers’ inherent propensities to trust and tolerate risk. This involves attention to issues around declining trust in science and science-based information, as well as common (but mistaken) values assumptions of the deficit model e.g. that the optimization of food production through technological means is agreed to by all consumers. Greater understanding of consumer risk perceptions will in turn precipitate a review the way experts are used, academic authorities for example, by food information associations. As Milgram demonstrated in the 60s via his ‘electrifying’ experiments <>, the power of the authority voice is simply staggering, but its use in risk scenarios must be judicious and not widen the very risk perception ‘gap’ that it is intended to narrow.

Further progress in anticipating consumer risk perceptions about food can be gained by reappraising targeting of consumers for food safety information. Various partnerships between public and private sectors and third party bodies continue to sink millions of dollars into communication programmes that target stakeholders by demographic criteria.

In the social media era, where citizen journalists and publics at large are creating large amounts of (often conflicting) information, targeting has become all the more important. For information on food risks, being able to tailor messaging by risk subcultures is becoming essential. Accounting for the risk responses of individualist and collectivist cultural groups can mean the difference between agreement and polarization around food risks. For risk averse egalitarians, provision of food risk information by industry groups adopting say an archetypal pro-business, less regulation message, can produce an opposite effect, greater concern about risks and what is more, motivation to take action to communicate (like, tweet, post) their opinion elsewhere.

This ‘cultural cognition’ approach to food risk communications raises serious questions over the manner of use of authority figures or third parties in delivery of messages and channels of communication to these cultural risk groups. Authorities that fail to reinforce the values and beliefs in line with the cultural risk group will simply reinforce the current viewpoint. Channels of communication that do not facilitate engagement or at least responsiveness may lead to the entire message only reinforcing what is currently known.

Over the last two decades we have seen food risk information campaigns spending over $20 million that target ‘gatekeeper’ audiences through print and broadcast media that completely failed to understand how critical predispositions around risk and trust are. These campaigns threatened target cultural values, hardening their stance and making them far more likely to support alternative arguments, which we now encounter though new and social media every day. Food safety communicators should consider presenting information in forms that are agreeable to culturally diverse groups. They should also utilize media to structure debate so that it avoids cultural polarization.

The nuances of food safety communication are critical. Certain core approaches that are the norm today require modification or need to be dispensed with. Those associations and councils that are defined by an educational approach to food safety must think about repositioning in light of the advances in understanding about food risk perception.

Account must also be made of lower levels of trust in business and industry associations, particularly due to imbalances of power (which increase vulnerability), lack of empathy, and perceived lack of alignment of interests. Trustworthiness thorough demonstrable actions is essential in the structure and management of trust. Without trust communication of food risks is futile. As with risk in the 80s, the academic understanding of organizational trust is now increasing and highlights the need to review conventional PR approaches, such as the 3rd party technique.

Incorporation of these strategic food risk communication imperatives into association processes will go a long way to informing public decision-making in a way that is both congruent with key values and beliefs and convergent with views of experts, governments, regulators and producers.