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15 February 2013

Ragnar Löfstedt – To restore trust, food risk needs to be clear like water

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In the wake of previous food scandals, the public no longer trusts the authorities or the food industry. Reversing the trend would require transparency regarding risk management. 

Ragnar Löfstedt is an expert on risk management at King’s College London, UK, and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Risk Research. He spoke to about his belief that to rebuild public trust in regulators and industry, a proactive risk communication strategy will be needed in the wake of the ongoing horsemeat controversy.

What is special about this horsemeat crisis in terms of risk and risk perception?
Research shows people are concerned about some risks more than others. People worry more about involuntary risk than voluntary risks by a factor of a thousand to one, for example.  They worry more when a risk is unfamiliar than familiar, when it is not controllable, when it influences many people rather than just a few and when it affects children. With this scare here, from a risk communication perception, you have all these factors combined and on a large scale.  Also the element of surprise is important.  The public wants a level of certainty, yet all of a sudden the Findus lasagna they thought was composed of beautiful beef is actually horsemeat.

Have past food scandals played into the horsemeat crisis?
The past scandals influence people’s perceptions.  We have had so many scandals in Europe from mad cow disease in the UK, to tainted transfusion blood in France to dioxins in Belgian chicken feed. The public is now more skeptical of the regulators than before. And trust is critically important.  If you have high levels of trust you have low levels of public perceived risk and vice versa.  People don’t really have trust in the regulator in Europe and that is why concerns are ramped up. 

Yet, I think the regulators have learnt from past food crisis.  But they, along with food manufacturers and politicians, need to explain to consumers what on earth has been happening and what they are doing to rectify it. That has to be done to restore public trust in processed meats. 

Does a scientific risk assessment go out the window once you have fraud?
That is the crucial issue.  It looks like people were making money from trying to sell horse off as cows. So you have some corruption and fraud. A risk assessment doesn’t really feature when you have these individuals who are trying to mislead the regulator and game the system. 

There is a shifting of blame to countries in Eastern Europe.  Should countries look closer to home?
We are trying to shift blame to Romania but they are pushing back. We should be looking at what has happened because of the various cuts in terms of reducing civil servants, in this age of austerity, and ask if perhaps one consequence is letting some of this meat slip in.  And obviously the animal passport system is not working properly.  That’s a European problem.  The whole affair is a major international issue and getting a handle on it will be much more difficult because of that.  It will require coordination between various regulatory bodies across Europe.


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