Actual risk versus perceived risk

by Keith Nunes
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More evidence is emerging that consumers may have greater concerns about the long-term safety of the ingredients used to formulate the food and beverage products they consume than bacterial contamination and the possibility of contracting a foodborne illness. The situation is a testament to the positive advances made in ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of the food supply, but it is also worrisome and highlights the influences that are making consumers more wary of perceived risks versus actual risks.

Earlier this summer the International Food Information Council published its 2015 Food and Health Survey. In the survey, 36% of those polled cited “chemicals in food,” like pesticide residues, as the top food safety issue for them and their families, while “foodborne illness from bacteria” received 34% of the vote. The concern about chemicals grew from 23% to 36% in the last year.

In August, the consulting firm Deloitte published the results of a study about the “consumer value equation” that had similar findings to IFIC’s. Specifically, consumers who participated in the Deloitte study said they are not only worried about foodborne illness, but that ingredients in some products may cause harm in the long term to their family.

Additional research published this year in the Journal of Food Protection shows the association between chemicals and harm to health was prevalent, especially among mothers. Many view “chemicals” as any ingredients, especially those perceived as being manufactured and unnatural, and added to food. The ingredients include those that have been put through rigorous testing to qualify for use in food.

By contrast, the risk from foodborne illness is more quantifiable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans, a total running in the tens of millions, falls ill from foodborne diseases, with 3,000 deaths.

“The responses to the ‘most important food safety issue’ questions illustrate the difference between perceived risk and actual risk,” said Anthony Flood, senior director of food safety for the IFIC Foundation. “Some consumers believe ‘chemicals in food’ potentially cause greater harm when, in reality, these pose less risk to their health than the bacteria that cause foodborne illness — especially when they may be including safe and approved food ingredients in their definition of ‘chemicals in food.’”

Food and beverage companies have adopted a variety of strategies in an effort to address this vexing problem. Many are simply reformulating items with ingredients consumers perceive as natural and less of a long-term risk. Ironically, such changes in formulation may impact a product’s shelf-life and stability.

Companies also are attempting to educate consumers. The Campbell Soup Co., for example, introduced a web site this summer called whatsinmyfood to highlight the reasons why certain ingredients are used to formulate products. The whatsinmyfood web site initially will provide detail on several of Campbell Soup’s brands, including condensed soups, Slow Kettle, Healthy Request and dinner sauces. The company plans to expand the number of U.S. brands included during the next year and will add global brands during the next three years.

It is easy to see why consumers may express confusion and concern. For example, news during the past decade about the negative effects of gluten on people with celiac disease has created an anti-gluten movement among consumers who are not afflicted with the condition. Or discussion about the relationship between the use of artificial colors and hyperactivity in children has contributed to consumer concern about ingredients perceived as unnatural.

Similar to Campbell Soup’s effort, companies and some industry trade associations are launching efforts to bring greater transparency to the food business. These endeavors may not rise to the level of a high school science class, but they will seek to give consumers a glimpse into the inner workings of the industry and perhaps restore some of the trust that has been lost in recent years.

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