15 February 2013

Clare Hall – who are the trusted sources of food safety information?

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The public perception of who can provide safe food evolves all the time and is culturally dependent, whereas people have preferred information channels they’d like to rely on to gain food safety information.

youris.com talks to Clare Hall, social science researcher at the Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh, UK, about the best ways to effectively inform the public about food safety in relation to pathogens responsible for foodborne diseases. She conducted a series of surveys on this issue under the EU funded project PathogenCombat , which was completed in 2010. The results showed the public’s preference in receiving food safety information, which could be used to design food safety campaigns for specific groups of consumers. It also showed the public perception of the most trustworthy sources of safe food. She believes, however, that the public views on whom to trust could have shifted in the light of recent contamination of beef meat by undeclared horse meat, across Europe.

Who came across as most trustworthy when providing food safety information?
We carried out consumer surveys in four European countries; namely, the UK, Denmark, Spain and Poland. There were some differences between the four countries studied. Perhaps the most interesting difference was that in Poland people placed most trust in local government sanitary inspection officials. By contrast, in Spain, the UK and Denmark people said that they trusted national government departments the most.

What type of retailer was perceived as providing the greatest food safety?
In all four countries, less than 40% of people agreed that large supermarkets have led to improvements in food safety. It was clear that there were some people in all countries who held the view that, in fact, the smaller, more traditional, food shops like butchers and green grocers provide safer food than the supermarkets do, although views were split on this.  

In what ways do people want to access food safety information?
Generally, across all countries surveyed, people said they would prefer to receive information about food safety via the television, either documentaries or cookery programs. This was when they were presented with nine possible media outlets.

How can stakeholders effectively communicate food safety messages to different people?
We identified eight different types of consumers based on their food safety information needs. This related to information about pathogens in food and about appropriate food safety behaviour in the home.  We then used other information from the survey to see how these types of consumers were defined in terms of age, sex, education and so on, and also their information preferences.  This combined what we call ‘cluster analysis’ with something called a ‘social marketing’ approach. This is basically how advertisers make sure that their adverts are effective when aimed at certain target groups. So the information from the project could, in theory, be used to design food safety campaigns for specific groups of consumers.

How has this field of research evolved since the completion of the project?
In light of emerging information about the presence of horse meat in food products labelled as beef in a number of EU countries, it would be interesting to find out whether peoples’ trust in different organisations to provide them with food safety information has been affected. In addition, it would be interesting to find out the extent to which people state they do or do not trust supermarkets and smaller, traditional shops to supply food that it is safe. Contamination events such as these effectively ‘move the goalposts’ and may have an impact of peoples’ views.

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