Consumers in Europe are often overwhelmed with the vast amounts of food risk and benefit information presented to them, some of which can be perceived as conflicting or confusing. On 12 September 2013, at the FoodRisC/European Food Safety Authority Conference 'New Challenges when Communicating Food-Related Issues', researchers presented key research outcomes, including the FoodRisC e-resource centre on food risk and benefit communication created by the FoodRisC project. FoodRisC was a three-and-a-half-year EU-funded project to assist communicators in effective dissemination about food issues, and thereby promote consumer understanding through clear messages.
"It is great to see researchers, regulators and professional communicators interacting together as risk and benefit communication is challenging, with rapidly evolving media channels and an increasingly diverse consumer base. It is only if everybody works together that we can build trust and consistency in how we address the public's concerns," says Patrick Wall, from University College Dublin Ireland and principal investigator for the FoodRisC project, during the conference in Brussels.
Based on the research carried out within the project and taking on board stakeholder feedback, FoodRisC developed an e-resource centre which provides information (including guidelines, cases studies, tips, practical examples and research tools) aimed at policy makers, food authorities, food industry, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders involved in food risk and benefit communication. The online centre is designed to facilitate effective and coherent communication on issues related to food risks and benefits.
FoodRisC researchers highlight the importance of considering journalists when creating a communication strategy. Journalists are involved not only in communication of messages to a wider audience, but also in the interpretation and framing of messages. Since both professional and 'citizen' journalists (e.g. social media users) communicate on food matters today, FoodRisC recommends directing messages at 'key influencers' within both groups of journalists.
Communicators should also take into account the differences between social and traditional media use in times of a food crisis. To explore this, FoodRisC researchers examined the social and traditional media coverage of three recent food crises in Europe (1). Results showed that Twitter, online news and blogs are increasingly important communication channels. Twitter was primarily used during all recent food crises to inform readers of breaking news and to refer them to more detailed information - usually online news. Compared to traditional media, social media users respond very quickly to a food crisis; however, they also lose interest quicker.
Social media channels, such as microblogs (e.g. Twitter), social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) and image or video sharing platforms (e.g. YouTube) have grown in popularity over the past few years, and users are spending a significantly longer amount of time online. FoodRisC encourages communicators to monitor 'what is being said' and 'who said it'. Monitoring provides insight into consumers' perceptions of food issues and allows detection and tracking of impending issues and on-going debates. It also provides an opportunity to correct any misleading or incorrect information. This last point is particularly important considering the long period of time that information can still be found on the internet via a search engine — known as the 'Echo-Chamber Effect'.
To better understand consumer 'search' behaviour related to food risks and benefits, FoodRisC researchers conducted a web-based survey with more than 6,000 consumers from nine countries in Europe: Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK. The survey results revealed that consumers most likely learn about food issues from the television and in newspapers. When considering internet use, consumers are most likely to start with keyword research in a search engine such as Google. The FoodRisC project concludes that the current popularity of social media has increased the potential of these channels for communicating about food issues, but more traditional means of communication still have an important role to play.
To build a strong communication strategy, the FoodRisC project encourages communicators to look into consumer reactions in each specific case, and respond accordingly. FoodRisC created the online VIZZATA tool (www.vizzata.com), enabling communicators to explore consumer responses to new, conflicting or uncertain messages, to obtain insights and facilitate future communications. By using the tool, FoodRisC analysed consumer concerns in January 2013, when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced that horse and pig DNA was found in beef products. Research results showed there was very little evidence of consumer concerns about health risks at this early stage of the incident. Consumers were principally worried that ingredients on labels did not match the contents of the products.
Finally, the project undertook qualitative research to explore people's understanding of food risks and benefits. In-depth interviews revealed that experts and stakeholders often perceive food risks as situations that are 'not always avoidable', while consumers often feel that food risks 'could and should be avoided'. Generally, consumers believe food risks are related to human involvement and lack of responsibility at some level in the food chain. At the same time, they mostly associate food benefits with positive health consequences and nutritional value. Understanding and researching the intended audience is an important step for effective communication, according to FoodRisC.