Food Scares: Consumer Perception, Risk Communication and Crisis Management
Communication with consumers is one of the most important elements in the effective management and control of food-borne hazards. This is particularly important in crisis situations – for example, during a food scare.
01. Jan 2014
31. Dec 2016
The Research Council of Norway
Aarhus University, Norwegian Business School BI and Centre of rural research
The overall purpose of this project is to provide guidelines for best practice regarding risk communication during a crisis.
During the recent horse meat scandal in Europe, consumers were shocked, food industry shaken and food safety authorities unsure how to react. Unfortunately, only the most general recommendations exist as to what type of crisis communication would be appropriate in such a situation. Many earlier investigations of the evolution of health scares were either limited to individual perceptions of risk or to institutional responses to risk. A lack of cross-disciplinary research has resulted in a failure to provide empirical tests of these two approaches together, thereby severely limiting their applicability and usefulness.
Background and status of knowledge
Consumer aspects of food safety have been investigated in a number of closely related areas of social science, including food quality, risk perception, risk and crisis communication, and environmental health risk management. In the past, a lack of multi-disciplinary research has prevented the different research traditions from being fully integrated. Based on the best available evidence gained within these areas, the proposed project will develop a comprehensive framework for understanding:
(a) consumer perceptions of food safety
(b) their change during crisis situations
(c) how this information can be incorporated into an evidence-based approach to risk and crisis communication.
Consumer perceptions of food safety
Consumers often have to rely on indirect cues in their judgments about food safety. These cues can be sensory experiences that consumers believe to be indicative of safety or harm (for example, the appearance, smell, texture or taste of a product). Alternatively, consumers may hold deeply rooted attitudes towards a particular technology that was involved during manufacturing or processing. Lastly, consumers may base their judgments on external information, either gathered through direct face-to-face communication, through traditional media, or interactively through social media. These cues are typically dependent on the perceived trustworthiness of the information source, the food industry in general, or the regulatory system. Previous research on the judgmental processes behind consumers’ food safety perceptions has focused either on sensory, attitudinal, or communication issues; however, since all of these can be expected to play a certain role in the judgmental processes of consumers, additional research is required to determine what the nature of their particular role and weighting. The proposed project, which is based on state-of-the-art social science methodologies, will directly inform our understanding of this complex issue. Only when the structure and processes that underlie food safety perceptions in the (relatively simpler) non-crisis case are understood, can we move on to determine how these perceptions change in the (even more complex) situation of a food crisis.
Change during crisis situations
In recent years, the confidence of consumers in the safety of the current food control system has been dealt a severe blow by numerous food scares. Historically, the most serious and lasting of these was the BSE scare, culminating in the European Commission’s ban on British beef exports in 1996. Many food scares have had a direct and substantial impact on the competitiveness of the Norwegian food industry, not always limited to the short-term. Just three examples are:
– The still on-going 2013 meat adulteration scandal where foods advertised as containing beef were found to contain undeclared horse meat.
– The 2012 salmonella outbreak in smoked salmon that caused sickness in hundreds of people in the Netherlands and the United States
– The ICA meat repackaging controversy from 2007 where out-of-date ground meat were repackaged and put back on the shelves in four of the largest hypermarkets in Sweden.
Each incident was associated with extensive public concern and significant financial losses in the sector concerned. Government officials and food producers contend that scares such as these are random accidents, rather than being indicative of weaknesses in the food control system. Nevertheless, research confirms the observation that food scares can result in long-lasting damage to market demand and the credibility of regulatory bodies and food companies, even when the scares are not justified on scientific grounds or when the institutions whose credibility is at stake are erroneously believed to be involved in protecting their own interests. Several of these issues have been the topic of previous research programmes. However, most of this existing work on food scares is based on case studies and after-the-fact interpretations, and hence is of unknown generalizability and of considerably reduced use in a policy context. The present project will, therefore, critically examine detailed evidence about how food safety perceptions are structured in the non-crisis case in order to understand and inform how these perceptions change in the crisis case. It will incorporate existing knowledge of earlier food scares into the development and validation stages of its modelling.
Risk and crisis communication – An evidence-based approach
By analogy to the well understood and internationally accepted HACCP approach to risk assessment, it will become possible to identify “critical control points” in consumers’ perception of risk; in other words, it will be possible to identify specific parts of consumers’ perceptual and attitudinal structure on which risk communication can exert a direct influence. Only when these “critical control points” have been determined, can effective risk communication strategies be developed and empirically tested. In the proposed cross-disciplinary research, controlled studies will be conducted to determine:
• What kind of information consumers best respond to
• What impact this response has on risk perceptions
• How panic responses about potential food hazards (e.g., over-restriction in diets resulting in risks of malnutrition) can be reduced by optimising and facilitating the effective delivery of risk information to consumers and improving the understanding of this information by consumers.
The results obtained will be used to:
• Develop effective risk communication strategies during crisis conditions
• Provide recommendations for best practice regarding risk communication in a crisis situation.
The first prosject meeting, at Nofima 14. mars 2014. From the left: Oddveig Storstad, Øydis Ueland, Therese Hagtvedt, Solveig Langsrud, Elin Røssvoll, Bendik M. Samuelsen, Nina Veflen Olsen and Joachim Sholderer. Photo: Wenche Aale Hægermark/Nofima