The dilemma of risk communication

By Juanjuan Sun

The outbreak of the Escherichia coli (E. coli) O104:H4 in Germany has once again brought back food safety issues in the European continent. Since then, some new lessons have been drawn, such as how to ensure more scrutiny for fresh produce, how to prevent or control biological hazards, especially when those hazards are continually under variation (such as the emergence of E. coli O104:H4 in this case,) or how to establish the traceability of E. coli along the food chain. Among others, one of the concerns which is going to be addressed here concerns risk communication. As reflected in this event, the dilemma on the risk communication has come into consideration. The question that is being raised is namely whether it is appropriate to update all the information with regard on risks during the investigation.

During this event, one of the most striking impressions has been the failure to find out the source timely and appropriately. At the beginning of this food safety issue, several food products have been suspected to be the possible source of the biological hazards. The Spanish cucumber was initially suspected and then it was the organic sprouts. However, after a period of uncertainty, it finally turned back to confirm that the source were the sprouts. Different opinions were raised as to the difficulties of finding the right source. On the one hand, there was criticism that the competent authorities should pay more attention to the accuracy of their information forasmuch an information incorrectly delivered can give rise to serious consequences. Indeed, in the case of the E. coli, although the guiltiness of the Spanish cucumber was proved wrong, the economic losses were colossal and will probably never be recovered. On the other hand, some opponents argued that the competent authorities have the duty to immediately publicize whatever information they have in hand in order to inform the consumers of the actual dangers or even the potential risks. In front of such a dilemma on disclosure of information, it is truly difficult to keep a balance regarding when and what is appropriate to update, even if risk communication is essential.

When it comes to risk communication, the fundamental goal is to provide meaningful, relevant and accurate information, in clear and understandable terms targeted to a specific audience. It may not solve all the disputes between the parties, but it may lead to a better understanding of those oppositions. It may also help to get a better understanding and a wider acceptance of the decisions concerning risk management.[1] In practice, the disclosure of the proper information can help to stop the rumors and to calm people so they can overcome the difficulties caused by an incident. For example, after the radiation exposure in Japan, people in China began to worry about the lack of salt stocks (as the sea which is the source for salt production could be polluted). As a result, more and more people came to buy salt in great quantities. When the government proved that a supply of safe and adequate salt could be ensured for a long time, people calmed down and the salt supply returned to normal. On the contrary, because negative information may increase fear and panic among the consumers, the government may be reluctant to disclose information in order to ensure stability. However, the lessons drawn from the SARS in China proved that when a government tries to cover information, the situation can get even worse, since people do not have enough information to prevent diseases. Therefore, when it comes to risk communication, the priority should be the protection of public health even at the cost of economic losses.

Nevertheless, the necessity of risk communication does not justify the disclosure of inaccurate information, especially when this information comes from competent authorities for food safety. Against this context, in order to increase the reliability and validity of risk communication, the competent authorities should envision food safety regulation standards, which would include the monitoring and alerting system, laboratory analysis and the capability on emergency or crisis management.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that communication may be carried out in conjunction with public health and educational food safety programs[2] through which knowledge plays a complementary role to the information. As said by James Madison, fourth President of the United States, knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a population who intends to be her own governor must arm herself with the power that knowledge gives. Therefore, when it comes to food safety, as long as the consumers have the possibility to distinguish sense from nonsense, right from wrong, they can take advantage of the information to make the right choice and avoid misjudgment. As does in the case of E.coli, it is transmitted to humans primarily through consumption of contaminated foods, such as raw or undercooked ground meat products and raw milk. Therefore, consumers should be educated in advance that cooking food thoroughly is a way to prevent bacterial infection.


[1] FAO/WHO, The application of risk communication to food standards and safety matters, Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation, Rome, 2–6 February 1998.

[2] Ibid.

A propos sunjuanjuan

Doctorante - Programme Lascaux
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