March 17 , 2010. 10:00-11:00am.
Porter Hall 223D, Carnegie Mellon University

Understanding effective risk-benefit communication relevant to food choice and food production

Presenter: Dr Lynn J. Frewer
Professor, Food Safety and Consumer Behaviour
MCB group, Social Sciences, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Telephone         +31(0)317 840291
Email:                 Lynn.Frewer@wur.nl
Web :                  www.mcb.wur.nl/UK/Staff/Faculty/Frewer

There is a need to develop effective risk-benefit communication with consumers. Historically, communication with consumers about food issues associated with health and environmental impact has focused almost exclusively on food riskswhile health benefits have been communicated separately, as nutritional information. Other areas relevant to consumer food choices (for example, innovations in food production technologies) may also involve consumers “trading off” perceived benefits (for example, improvements to consumer health, or more sustainable production) against perceived risks, for example, uncertain long-term effects associated with production processes, or ethical concerns about the integrity of nature negatively impacted by the production process. In reality, consumer food consumption decisions frequently involve weighing risks against benefits. Indeed, integrated assessment of risk and benefit is increasingly forming an integral part of the assessment phase of risk analysis. Two case studies will be presented. The first will focus on issues associated with the risks and benefits of optimal nutrition, specifically  communicating the risks and benefits of fish consumption to consumers using Qalys. The second focuses on consumer perceptions of the use of different agrifood technologies (nanotechnology, genetic modification, “conventional” production, and organic production) and the impact of risk-benefit information on subsequent consumer attitudes. The results suggest that risk information has a greater impact than benefit information on attitude formation under conditions where attitudes are uncrystallised. However, attitudes once formed are difficult to change. In the case of emerging technologies in particular, peoples attitudes may be guided by perceptions of “shared values” with opinion leaders. 

Scientific understanding regarding how consumers perceive risks and benefits associated with foods is urgently required, together with further understanding of the cognitive processes underlying risk-benefit communication, and associated decision-making regarding food choices. This knowledge will form the basis of effective risk-benefit communication strategy associated with nutritional and technological food issues.