FAO/WHO seminar on Acrylamide in Food

Arusha, Tanzania 17 Mars 2003

Presentation by

Helga Odden Reksnes, Ministry of Agriculture/National Veterinary Institute, Norway


Acrylamide and risk communication

On 24 April 2002, the Swedish National Food Administration issued a press release with the following headline: "Acrylamide is formed during the preparation of food and occurs in many foodstuffs". The press release presented facts related to the levels of acrylamide, types of foodstuffs, the carcinogenicity of acrylamide, methods of analysis etc. The head of R & D at the National Food Administration (NFA) stated that "The discovery that acrylamide is formed during the preparation of food, and at high levels, is new knowledge. It may be possible to explain some of the cases of cancer caused by food." and he also stated that "These results open a completely new field of research. The National Food Administration and the University of Stockholm will now continue and expand these studies. The NFA has set up a scientific committee and has initiated international contacts, e.g. with the European Commission." The press release also emphasized that "At present there are not sufficient data to warrant changing the current dietary recommendations issued by the NFA." And finally regarding possibilities to reduce the levels of acrylamide: "…it may be possible to reduce the levels by changing the methods of production and preparation. The National Food Administration has therefore invited the food industry to a meeting to discuss the matter."

On 26 April 2002, the World Health Organization issued a press release responding to the Swedish findings by announcing an urgent expert consultation on acrylamide in food. This joint FAO/WHO consultation was held in June 2002, over all supporting the Swedish findings, encouraging further research and giving interim advice on how to minimize the risk. The consultation also gave the following advice as to risk communication: "The consultation would encourage transparent and open risk assessment and risk management processes and recognises the importance of involving interested parties (consumer, industry, retail, etc.) in this process at some stages. Risk communication policy should facilitate the crucial communication process between risk assessor and risk manager and among all parties involved."

The open and honest Swedish initiative and the FAO/WHO rapid response signal a new approach to managing risk in the food sector. Both facts and insecurity were communicated. The need for further research was underlined. Extensive information was available on the internet. Eventually, initiatives were taken both nationally and internationally to form workshops, both on expert and stakeholder levels. Within a few months, the crisis was turned into a carefully designed risk analysis process in some countries – a process which was mainly characterized by a proactive risk communication approach.


Risk communication – a decision-making tool

Risk communication and food safety are closely connected. For many consumers the decision-making at the food counter is not based upon actual findings in food laboratories or decisions made by local or global bureaucrats – it is a story beginning and ending with their empathy for and trust related to the product, the producers, the authorities and the manufactures. And this is again related to the different organisations’ willingness and ability to practice communication, in particular risk communication.

Within the international scientific framework of risk analysis, risk communication has the recent years been acknowledged as playing an important part, often decisive with regards to the outcome or effect of risk assessment and risk management on public opinion and behaviour. Both WHO/FAO, the Codex System, USA, The European Commission, the Nordic Council of Ministers and other multinational bodies (like the OECD) have given priority to the elaboration of models within risk analysis – all more or less recognising the importance of risk communication as an integrated part of the process. But what does this mean – how can risk communication become an important tool in risk analysis, moving from statements in various documents to significant contribution to an appropriate end result? Becoming more than open and transparent distribution of scientific complex documents for all interested and affected parties to comment on? And involving reliable and relevant stakeholders in the risk assessment and risk management processes?


The Norwegian approach to acrylamide

In Norway, The Norwegian Food Control Authority quickly responded to the Swedish announcement and initiated different projects in close dialogue with major stakeholders (science, industry, consumers). A preliminary quantitative risk assessment of the health implications of acrylamide in food was conducted by the Norwegian Scientific Committee on Food and presented in June 2002. The assessment has been continuously updated based on analysis from product testing. The assessments are available on the internet.

In collaboration with the Food Control Authority and the Federation of Norwegian Food and Drink Industry, The Norwegian Food Research Institute organised a workshop in June 2002. All major stakeholders (authorities, research, industry, retail, consumers) were represented. Challenges were identified and joint measures were planned. One focus was put on reducing the acrylamide level. As a result, an Acrylamide Network was formed in August 2002 with participation from companies producing bread, potato crisps and French fries. The network meetings offer an important opportunity to practice risk communication between industry, researchers and food control officials. Another focus was on further research. Several applications were issued to both national and international research funding sources. Two major research projects are running today. A third focus was put on sharing knowledge and communication challenges. In addition to seminars and meetings, the internet has so far been the most used channel for sharing information between stakeholders.

The Norwegian approach, similar to the Swedish initiative and the FAO/WHO rapid response, is characterised by a proactive risk management policy, involving stakeholders at many levels of the risk analysis process.


Risk communication within the risk analysis framework

Although risk communication materialised early in the official expert consultations on risk analysis initiated by FAO/WHO in the 90-ties, the concept is still awaiting it’s deliverance within the risk analysis framework. Many aspects of risk communication were highlighted in the report from FAO/WHO expert consultation on "The application of risk communication to food standards and safety matters" in Rome 1998. The consultation’s definition of risk communication put the phenomenon right into the risk analysis; "Risk communication is the exchange of information and opinions concerning risk and risk-related factors among risk assessors, risk managers, consumers and other interested parties."

The Codex Alimentarius elaborated the initial definition and has adopted the following definition: "The interactive exchange of information and opinions throughout the risk analysis process concerning hazards and risks, risk-related factors and risk perceptions, among risk assessors, risk managers, consumers, industry, the academic community and other interested parties, including the explanation of risk assessment findings and the basis of risk management decisions." Codex has encouraged the promotion of grater transparency, improving the understanding of how precaution and scientific uncertainty are taken into account in the risk analysis process and the strengthening of risk communication.


A Nordic initiative

The Nordic Council of Ministers and the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture have initiated a project on risk communication in the food sector. The objective is to establish a basis for further development of risk communication within the risk analysis framework, with particular focus on development of risk communication tools and guidelines. The project will focus on what happens within the risk analysis process; the interaction between assessors and managers and how the different interested and affected parties are actually involved in the stages of risk analysis. Two pilot seminars will be held during spring 2003. The first, in collaboration with the Swedish National Food Administration, will be focusing on the case of acrylamide. Target groups are key personnel within risk assessment, risk management and risk communication and decision makers representing stakeholder interest. The seminars will discuss barriers to effective risk communication and try to identify the major elements of Good Risk Communication Practice, based on updated knowledge in the research field of risk communication and stakeholder experiences.


Risk and communication

Risk, (of Greek Rhiza; clip or rock) is originally a maritime expression. It dates back to the 16th century and has to do with navigating ships in dangerous waters. Risk in today’s natural science food safety world is defined as "a function of the probability of an adverse health effect and the magnitude of that effect, consequential to a hazard in food". Somewhat different from the original meaning but nevertheless still expressing what is typical of all risk issues: There is no 0-risk. There’s always an element of insecurity, the need to define the probability and the magnitude. In the case of acrylamide this is more than evident.

The word communication is derived from Latin; "communicare", meaning common, to share, indicating a process having joint action as its purpose. To communicate with somebody is a complex process where many factors influence the outcome. To communicate means sharing visions, objectives, attitudes, knowledge, information and opinions. Communication is a continuous process of coding, decoding and interpretation and has become a very complicated issue in our information society.

Facing the challenges of food safety in modern society, the technical definition of "risk" needs modifying. We must introduce another factor caused by individual perception based on personal values, social background etc. and perhaps also caused by mistrust to science and governmental bodies. This factor is been known as the "outrage"- factor. This factor, dependent on many variables, must be assessed along with the science based risk data when managing risks in the food sector.


Acrylamide and "outrage"

Interesting to notice, that in the acrylamide case, the "outrage"- factor, has not been as high as might be expected. This is probably due to the fact that acrylamide seems to be a semi-natural phenomenon; the chemical substance which causes the formation of acrylamide during processing, is probably present in the raw material – the formation of acrylamide being influenced by different types of food processing. People tend to accept naturally caused risks better than man made risks. Acrylamide seem to fall into a middle category; semi-natural/semi-man-made.

Another aspect of the acrylamide risk is that it seems to be present in many stable foods and must have been there for quite some time. This fact could probably, although somewhat contradictory, help the consumer manage the risk.

However, the most important reason for the absence of public outrage relating to acrylamide in food probably has to do with trust. Trust was integrated from day one, as a result of open, honest and proactive risk communication from the National Food Administration in Sweden, the researchers at Stockholm University and the FAO/WHO. Some voices have advocated that the Swedish authorities overreacted and caused unnecessary alarm. I do not share this opinion. The National Food Administration communicated facts, uncertainties and opinions related to acrylamide in food in an open and frank manner, thus contributing to enhancing trust in the ongoing risk analysis process related to acrylamide.

Many proactive initiatives followed the Swedish initiative and WHO/FAO response; The European Union and many national administrations, like the Norwegian, initiated structural approaches to analysing risks related to acrylamide. Networks were established within research, industry and consumer interests, on international and national level, contributing to the dialogue and the sharing of information and knowledge. The chemistry of acrylamide is beyond understanding for most consumers. It’s all a question of trust and confidence and the stakeholders willingness to communicate openly about the risk and to work actively to minimize the potential risk related to acrylamide.

Open and frank dialogue, related to the acrylamide risk, will also build trust and confidence for future risk situations. In many ways, the handling of the acrylamide case is a school example of how to work with risk communication. Let us investigate further why risk communication must be a central issue in all food safety related matter, also within the Codex Alimentarius framework.


Why risk communication?

Communication is vital for obtaining goals, in order to gain trust and ensure that different measures have the intended impact. Without communication, joint action is impossible. Joint action is an absolute must within the risk analysis framework. In these situations, actors are present on different levels and represent many sectors and interest. Make up a list of stakeholders relating to the acrylamide-issue and I can assure you that the list will be incredibly long. Without strategic and planned communication, it’s impossible to involve those who are affected by the risk analysis.


Risk communication in risk society

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck coined the term risk society in his book Risikogesellschaft; Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne, 1986. In short, what we know as the modern industrial society, Beck claims, has arrived at a new stage, not bound for a post-modern society as was to be expected, but for a second edition of the modern industrial society. The characteristic of this second stage is risk, hence the concept risk society. In this society, shaping values is systematically followed by shaping risks. Beck is especially occupied with the role of experts and how they view the public and he states that "science is one of the causes, the medium of definition and the source of solutions." Defining acceptable risks on the basis of mathematical or technical motivations is impossible according to Beck. – Who’s to say who’s right, asks Beck and underlines that participation in the risk assessment process is very important. He states that handling risk could lead to democratisation of democracy. And here we are right in the middle of the risk analysis plate.

No matter what issues are taken with Beck’s rather radical views on experts and technologists, there’s no getting away from the fact of Beck very aptly describing and explaining a social development for all to see, and leaving its mark also in the food sector. Man-made risks associated with food have become every day issues, the mad cows and genetically modifies food are both good examples. The recent Foot and Mouth disease-outbreak in Europe demonstrated the vulnerability of modern society, the enormous costs related to handling the disaster and the social implications for those affected and the community as a whole. The public has developed a sound scepticism to expertise and science and barriers between the unlearned and learned have become more and more evident. Aside from voicing the concerns of the public, media has entered the scene as an unbiased social debater. Science and expertise have taken on a new role in social development, the meaning of which they are unable to convey. All of this having an impact on public authority and all other actors taking part in the risk analysis process. Communication may be the essential tool to succeed in risk society and risk analysis, in particular risk communication.


A risk communication methodology

Risk communication has often been regarded as an adjunct to risk assessment and risk management. Like a three step rocket; first the experts assess the risk, than the administration manage the risk and at the end somebody, usually not very clearly defined, tries to communicate the result. Therefore, risk communication work has aimed at educating the general public. The belief has been that if the public is informed properly, it will act rationally. Experience and practise teach us that this way of defining risk communication has not given the wanted outcome. Furthermore, it is rather the experts, administration and business sector that are in need of training in communication. Risk communication must provide a continuous contact between all parties concerned with assessing and managing the risk. Risk communication must also involve all interested parties, help improve transparency of decisions and increase the potential level of the acceptance of the outcome. The Norwegian Food Safety Risk Communication Programme developed a model in 1997 to illustrate how risk communication functions as contact film between risk assessors and risk managers and opening the risk analysis process to public participation and evaluation.

Risk communication is recognised as an integral part of risk analysis. But, as I mentioned initially, there’s a strong need for concrete measures and initiatives. Here are some ideas to be developed in collaboration with relevant national and international bodies.

  1. Establishing an interdisciplinary forum to develop risk communication as a proper scientific discipline, especially with regards to the risk analysis process. This means establishing binding contact between social sciences and natural sciences nationally and internationally to ensure mutual understanding and knowledge sharing between the disciplines in order to create the best possible professional platform for risk communication. Such a forum should evaluate and develop interaction/communication methodology between risk assessors and risk managers, with a view of presenting such interactions to a broader public (consumers and other interested parties). The forum should meet regularly and develop risk communication models related to specific risk topics and processes.
  2. Establish a system for environmental scanning and mapping and analysing existing relevant material nationally and internationally regarding risk communication and consumer perceptions, initiate new investigations when needed. This means adopting the environmental scanning tool as a means to identify scientifically important risk topics (emerging diseases, food borne crisis etc) and/or perceived risk topics within the administration, in the scientific community or among consumers, mapping needs and desires within the same target groups, developing and implementing suitable tools for risk communication. This could also imply setting up a specific databased web to present data/surveys to ensure knowledge transmitting and better utilisation of data.

  4. As a result point 1 and 2, it would be possible to develop and test different approaches and tools for excellent risk communication. This means developing

There should be a potential for applying risk communication methodology to present international food safety initiatives (including FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission work) to a broader public. There is also a potential for crossover learning effects from food safety approaches to other risk topics.


Lessons learned from the acrylamide case

Communicate in an open and honest manner about the risk and uncertainties related to the risk. Establish a stakeholder infrastructure.

Be ahead of the problem. Scan the environment in order to spot which areas and which questions are going to arise tomorrow. All it will take is strategic planning, dedicated resources and willingness to act proactively.

Establish communications arenas (risk assessors – risk managers, risk managers – industry and consumers, all stakeholders) integrate and use these arenas actively in the risk analysis process. These arenas must be as open as possible so to ensure transparency and build trust among those not attending.

Most risk managers and risk assessors are not good communicators. Issues like acrylamide are extremely complex. The evolving science is challenging, even for the scientists. Communicating the risk story of acrylamide demands advanced communications skills.


Closing remarks

The food world is complex. The many various players and stakeholders on the scene result in different statements, attitudes and moves. They frequently appear to clash due to being based on various institution roles. Sometimes the messages actually clash, expressing conflicts of interest, disagreement over scientific matters etc. Mass media are, and must be, criticising of public authorities and business, also concerning food. Conflicts are good news. Attempts at withholding information from being published, better still. The unbiased information given by one public specialist is no longer sufficient. Anti-expertise is frequently provided, the media compounding and reinforcing the conflicts. Yesterday’s truth becomes tomorrow’s lie. Zero risk no longer exists. Food safety has proved a flexible concept. The whole responsible food sector has to produce confidence with the consumer by putting their cards on the table and entering into a dialogue with both each other, the media and the consumer. Differing views by various players should be presented in a factual way, without antagonists getting their hackles up.

Risk society has changed the role of the authorities and affects the roles of all the players in the food field. Efficient solutions demand joint action. The significance of good relations and effective networks between the parties concerned require knowledge about communication as an agent and the ability to communicate. Knowledge about target groups, attitudes and behaviour is decisive. Risk contains much more than just mathematically measurable quantities and should not be left to experts alone to define. The public are conducting their own risk analysis when buying or preparing food every day. An able risk communicator will take this into consideration when judging risk from his or her scientific, administrative or business position. The globalisation of risk means that the main playing field no longer is on a national level. The international institutions, in particular the Codex Alimentarius, must develop a sound framework for risk analysis in food safety making sure that all stakeholders on a global level are involved in the process. Risk communication should be an important tool in this framework.