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Introduction and definition

Effective communication of information and opinion on risks associated with real or perceived hazards in food is an essential and integral component of the risk analysis process. Risk communication may originate from official sources at international, national or local levels. It may also be from other sources such as industry, trade, consumers and other interested parties. In the context of this report, interested parties may include government agencies, industry representatives, the media, scientists, professional societies, consumer organizations and other public interest groups and concerned individuals. In some cases, risk communication may be carried out in conjunction with public health and food safety education programmes.

In 1997, the CAC adopted the following definition of risk communication: “an interactive exchange of information and opinions concerning risk among risk assessors, risk managers, consumers and other interested parties” (6). Risk communication has also been described as all those integrated processes and procedures: a) that involve and inform all interested parties within the risk analysis process; b) that assist the development of transparent and credible decision-making processes; and c) that can instil confidence in risk management decisions. A wide variety of communication strategies can be used in the management of food-related risks, ranging from the development of international standards, to management of acute outbreaks of foodborne disease, to long-term programmes aimed at changing food production, food handling and dietary practices.

The Consultation considered the Codex definition to be too narrow, since it does not take into account the need to communicate factors other than the probability of the adverse health effect and the severity and magnitude of that effect. Understanding and communicating risk has clearly been shown to be influenced by a host of additional factors, such as whether the risk is voluntary or involuntary; whether the distribution of risk and benefit is equitable; the transparency of the process; the extent to which risk managers are trusted; the degree of personal control; the individual dread of the adverse effect; and the extent to which the risk is unknown (7). To encompass this wider concept, the Consultation recommended that the Codex definition be modified by inserting the words “and risk related factors” so that the definition would read “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 goals of risk communication

The fundamental goal of risk communication is to provide meaningful, relevant and accurate information, in clear and understandable terms targeted to a specific audience. It may not resolve all differences between parties, but may lead to a better understanding of those differences. It may also lead to more widely understood and accepted risk management decisions. Effective risk communication should have goals that build and maintain trust and confidence. It should facilitate a higher degree of consensus and support by all interested parties for the risk management option(s) being proposed.

The Consultation considered that the goals of risk communication are to:

  1. Promote awareness and understanding of the specific issues under consideration during the risk analysis process, by all participants;

  2. Promote consistency and transparency in arriving at and implementing risk management decisions;

  3. Provide a sound basis for understanding the risk management decisions proposed or implemented;

  4. Improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the risk analysis process;

  5. Contribute to the development and delivery of effective information and education programmes, when they are selected as risk management options;

  6. Foster public trust and confidence in the safety of the food supply;

  7. Strengthen the working relationships and mutual respect among all participants;

  8. Promote the appropriate involvement of all interested parties in the risk communication process; and,

  9. Exchange information on the knowledge, attitudes, values, practices and perceptions of interested parties concerning risks associated with food and related topics.

Risk communication as an integral part of risk analysis

Risk communication is generally accepted as one of the three components that constitute the process of food safety risk analysis. Risk assessment is the process that is used to quantitatively or qualitatively estimate and characterize risk. Risk management is the weighing and selecting of options and implementing controls as appropriate to assure an appropriate level of protection. This Consultation recognized that risk communication, being an integral part of risk analysis, is a necessary and critical tool to appropriately define issues and to develop, understand and arrive at the best risk management decisions.

For many years, those responsible for assessing and managing risks associated with hazards in the food supply have communicated information and opinion about those hazards in the interests of protecting and promoting public health. These communications were expressed mainly in qualitative terms regarding the hazards as there were often no clear quantitative data concerning the resultant risks. More recently, the formal development and application of risk-based approaches to food safety and the availability of quantitative information related to risks in human populations, has provided the opportunity for improved implementation of risk-based management strategies. Risk communication has played an important role in the application of such risk-based approaches, by providing a means to interactively consider all relevant information and data. Of course, risk communication is also applicable in the many situations where the qualitative consideration of hazards is undertaken. In such cases, the principles and strategies of risk communication as elaborated by this Consultation would still apply.

In the present Codex context, the CAC and its subsidiary bodies are responsible for establishing a risk assessment policy. This provides the guidance for those necessary value judgements and policy choices that may need to be applied at specific decision points in the risk assessment process. It is vital that risk managers and assessors maintain open communications with each other and with other interested parties in defining and applying policy in this area.

Before a formal risk assessment is initiated, appropriate information must be obtained from interested parties to prepare a “risk profile”. This describes the food safety problem and its context, and identifies those elements of the hazards or risk which are relevant to various risk management decisions. This often involves a range of preliminary risk evaluation activities, which rely on effective risk communication (e.g., ranking for international standard setting or putting a food safety problem in an appropriate national or international context).

Risk characterization is the primary means by which food safety risk assessment findings are communicated to risk managers and other interested parties. Numerical estimates in the characterization, therefore, should be supported by qualitative information about the nature of the risk and about the weight of evidence that defines and supports it. There are inherent difficulties in communicating the quantitative aspects of a risk assessment. They include ensuring that the scientific uncertainties inherent in the risk characterization are clearly explained and that scientific terminology and technical jargon do not render the presentation of risk less understandable to the target audience. Communications among risk assessors, risk managers and other interested parties should use language and concepts that are suitable for the intended audience.

Risk communication facilitates the identification and weighting of policy and decision alternatives by risk managers in the risk analysis process. Interactive communication among all interested parties tends to assure transparency, facilitate consistency and improve the risk management process. To the extent that it is practical and reasonable, interested parties should be involved in identifying management options, developing the criteria for selecting those options and providing input to the implementation and evaluation strategy. When a final risk management decision has been reached, it is important that the basis for the decision be clearly communicated to all interested parties.

During the selection of risk management options, the risk manager may often need to consider factors in addition to science in the evaluation of a risk. This is particularly important at the national government level. Interactive communications are essential to identify social, economic, religious, ethical, and other concerns, so that these can be openly considered and addressed.

Preparation of risk messages for dissemination is an important part of the risk communication process. It is also a deliberate and specialized undertaking and should be treated as such. Good risk communication and proper risk messages will not always decrease conflict and mistrust, but inadequate risk communication and poorly developed messages will almost certainly increase both.

Roles and responsibilities for risk communication

International Organizations

The “Codex system”

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is an inter-governmental organization with established procedures for input from member governments and other interested parties such as consumer and industry representatives as well as other international standards organizations. The organizational structure and processes of the CAC and its subsidiary bodies, provide many opportunities for effective risk communication, both within the Codex system (i.e., among the various Committees) and external to Codex. Annex 2 provides an outline of how risk communication is used in the development of Codex standards for foods.

The Codex Committee on General Principles (CCGP) deals with procedural and general matters, including establishment of principles that define the purpose and scope of Codex work. In the context of risk analysis, the CCGP is currently elaborating principles and guidelines for the application of risk-based approaches to food safety throughout the Codex system. These will allow all interested parties to understand the agreed framework for risk management decision making within Codex.

Normally, the general subject Committees are involved in risk management, such as the development of standards, guidelines and other recommendations. Their work is supported by risk assessment information often supplied by FAO/WHO expert advisory groups. These include the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). Other international expert bodies such as the International Commission for Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF) also may provide scientific support. Established channels exist for co-ordination with other international scientific bodies.

Co-ordination of Codex risk management activities is carried out by the FAO/WHO Codex Secretariat. The Secretariat is also responsible for some risk communication activities such as the publication of a variety of documents, including standards, reports and other texts from the Codex committees. Reports of Codex meetings provide a record of the deliberations and the outcome of food safety discussions leading to the elaboration of Codex standards. The Internet World-Wide Web is increasingly being used to rapidly disseminate these reports and other Codex information.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO)

FAO and WHO provide advice to member governments and other interested parties from internationally recognized experts through consultations on specific issues. Technical and developmental assistance to member governments on matters related to public health and the quality and safety of the food supply are also provided. The agencies have a responsibility to develop and promote the principles and procedures of risk analysis and to communicate these to member governments to assist them in the development of effective strategies and information programmes at the national level. Where FAO and WHO jointly undertake to conduct risk assessment activities (e.g., JECFA, JMPR, expert consultations), they communicate the results and recommendations to their member governments, as well as other interested parties, through published reports and the Internet World-Wide Web.

World Trade Organization (WTO)

The WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) encourages harmonization and places a strong emphasis on the risk communication principles of transparency and consistency in the development and application of food safety measures. Harmonization includes the establishment, recognition, and application of common sanitary measures by different member countries, and this is clearly dependent on effective risk communication. The WTO SPS Committee manages the implementation of the SPS Agreement for WTO member countries and, through the notification procedure required by the SPS Agreement, it communicates risk management decisions among those member countries.


Governments have a fundamental responsibility for risk communication when managing public health risks, regardless of the management methods used. With the responsibility for managing risks comes the responsibility to communicate information about risks to all interested parties to an acceptable level of understanding. Decision-makers within governments have the obligation to ensure effective communication with interested parties when developing scientific and technical analyses and to appropriately involve the public and other interested parties in the risk analysis process. Risk managers also have the obligation to understand and respond to the underlying bases of public concerns about health risks.

Governments should work towards a consistent and transparent approach when communicating risk information. Communication strategies may differ for different issues and different target audiences. This is most apparent when dealing with issues where specific groups have differing views of a risk. These differences in perception, which may be due to economic, social or cultural differences, should be recognized and respected. It is the outcome, i.e. effectively managed risk, which is most important. Differing methods of reaching the outcome may be acceptable.

Governments that are members of the CAC have a responsibility to play an active role in the Codex process. They should ensure that all interested parties within their countries (industry, consumers, national organizations, etc.) have an opportunity to contribute to national positions on Codex matters, to the extent practicable and reasonable. They should also ensure that these positions are transmitted to Codex in a timely manner. Governments need to take an active role in the deliberations during Codex meetings and ensure that interested parties at the national level are aware of and understand the decisions reached at those meetings. The CAC is actively encouraging the formation of National Codex Co-ordinating Committees within member governments, to assist in meeting these responsibilities.

Governments are often responsible for public health education and delivery of appropriate messages to the health community. In these roles, risk communication enables the delivery of important information to specific target groups, such as pregnant women and the elderly.


Industry is responsible for the quality and safety of the food it produces. It also has a corporate responsibility to communicate information regarding risks to affected consumers. Industry participation in all aspects of risk analysis is essential for effective decision making and can serve as a major source of information for risk assessment and risk management. The routine information flow between industry and government usually involves communications necessary to set standards or gain approvals for new technologies, ingredients, or labels. In that connection, food labels have been and are routinely used to communicate information on the ingredients and instructions on the safe handling of food products, as a form of risk management using the label as the communicating device.

* For the purposes of this section, the term “governments” is meant to represent the responsibilities typically assumed by national governments, but which may be delegated to a regional organization (e.g. the European Community), or which may be subsumed by international agreements between countries.

One goal of risk management is to identify the lowest reasonably achievable risk. This may require a knowledge of the specific process variables and capabilities within a food processing and handling system. The industry has the best understanding of those variables and capabilities and the information that they can provide would be vital for risk managers as they work with risk assessors to prepare the context and scenarios necessary for the risk assessment process.

Consumers and consumer organizations

Broad and open participation in risk analysis at the national level is viewed by the public as an essential element of what constitutes appropriate public health protection. Early participation in the risk analysis process by the public or consumer organizations can help to ensure that consumer concerns are addressed and will generally result in a better public understanding of the risk assessment process and how risk-based decisions are made. It can further provide support for the risk management decisions that result from the assessment. Consumers and consumer organizations have a responsibility to present their concerns and opinions on health risks to risk managers. International consumer organizations that are Codex observers have direct input into Codex discussions on these matters. International and national consumer organizations play an important role in disseminating information on health risks directly to consumers. Consumer organizations also often work with governments and industry to ensure that risk messages addressed to consumers are appropriately formulated and delivered.

Academia and research institutions

Members of the academic and research community may play an important role in risk analysis by contributing scientific expertise on health and food safety matters and assisting in the identification of hazards. They may be asked by the media or other interested parties to comment on government decisions. They often have a high level of credibility with the public and the media, and may serve as independent sources of information. Researchers involved in studies of consumer perception or communication methods and the assessment of communication effectiveness, may also be helpful to risk managers seeking expert advice on risk communication approaches and strategies.


The media clearly play a critical role in risk communication. Much of the information that the public receives on food-related health risks comes to them through the media. The many varieties of mass media have roles which vary depending on the issue, the context and the type of media involved. The media may merely transmit a message, or they may create or interpret a message. They are not limited to official sources of information and their messages often reflect the concerns of the public and other sectors of society. This can and does facilitate risk communication since risk managers may become aware of concerns of which they were not previously cognizant.

Elements of effective risk communication

Depending on what is to be communicated and to whom, risk communication messages may contain information on the following:

The nature of the risk

The nature of the benefits

Uncertainties in risk assessment

Risk management options

Principles of risk communication


In formulating risk communication messages, the audience should be analyzed to understand their motivations and opinions. Beyond knowing in general who the audience is, it is necessary to actually get to know them as groups and ideally as individuals to understand their concerns and feelings and to maintain an open channel of communication with them. Listening to all interested parties is an important part of risk communication.


Scientific experts, in their capacity as risk assessors, must be able to explain the concepts and processes of risk assessment. They need to be able to explain the results of their assessment and the scientific data, assumptions and subjective judgements upon which it is based, so that risk managers and other interested parties clearly understand the risk. They further must be able to clearly communicate what they know and what they do not know, and to explain the uncertainties related to the risk assessment process. In turn, the risk managers must be able to explain how the risk management decisions are arrived at as well.


Successful risk communication requires expertise in conveying understandable and usable information to all interested parties. Risk managers and technical experts may not have the time or the skill to perform complex risk communication tasks, such as responding to the needs of the various audiences (public, industry, media, etc.) and preparing effective messages. People with expertise in risk communication should therefore be involved as early as possible. This expertise will likely have to be developed by training and experience.


Information from credible sources is more likely to influence the public perception of a risk than is information from sources that lack this attribute. The credibility accorded a source by a target audience may vary according to the nature of the hazard, culture, social and economic status, and other factors. If consistent messages are received from multiple sources then the credibility of the message is reinforced. Factors determining source credibility include recognized competence or expertise, trustworthiness, fairness, and lack of bias. For example, the terms that consumers have associated with high credibility include factual, knowledgeable, expert, public welfare, responsible, truthful, and good “track record”. Trust and credibility must be nurtured and can be eroded or lost through ineffective or inappropriate communication. In studies, consumers have indicated that distrust and low credibility resulted from exaggeration, distortion and perceived vested interest.

Effective communications acknowledge current issues and problems, are open in their content and approach, and are timely. Timeliness of the message is most important since many controversies become focused on the question, “why didn't you tell us sooner”, rather than on the risk itself. Omissions, distortions and self-serving statements will damage credibility in the longer term.


Regulatory agencies of governments at the national, regional and local levels, have a fundamental responsibility for risk communication. The public expects the government to play a leading role in managing public health risks. This is true when the risk management decision involves regulatory or voluntary controls, and is even true when the government decision is to take no action. In the latter event, communication is still essential to provide reasons why taking no action is the best option. In order to understand the public concerns and to ensure that risk management decisions respond to those concerns in appropriate ways, the government needs to determine what the public knows about the risks and what the public thinks of the various options being considered to manage those risks.

The media play an essential role in the communication process and therefore shares in these responsibilities. Communication on immediate risks involving human health, particularly when there is a potential for serious health consequences, such as food-borne illnesses, cannot be treated the same as less immediate food safety concerns. Industry also has a responsibility for risk communication, especially when the risk is as a result of their products or processes. All parties involved in the risk communication process (e.g. government, industry, media) have joint responsibilities for the outcome of that communication even though their individual roles may differ. Since science must be the basis for decision making, all parties involved in the communication process should know the basis principles and data supporting the risk assessment and the policies underlying the resulting risk management decisions.


It is essential to separate “facts” from “values” in considering risk management options. At a practical level, it is useful to report the facts that are known at the time as well as what uncertainties are involved in the risk management decisions being proposed or implemented. The risk communicator bears the responsibility to explain what is known as fact and where the limits of this knowledge begins and ends. Value judgements are involved in the concept of acceptable levels of risk. Consequently, risk communicators should be able to justify the level of acceptable risk to the public. Many people take the term ‘safe food’ to mean food with zero risk, but zero risk is often unattainable. In practice, ‘safe food’ usually means food that is ‘safe enough’. Making this clear is an important function of risk communication.


For the public to accept the risk analysis process and its outcomes, the process must be transparent. While respecting legitimate concerns to preserve confidentiality (e.g. proprietary information or data), transparency in risk analysis consists of having the process open and available for scrutiny by interested parties. Effective two-way communication between risk managers, the public and interested parties is both an essential part of risk management and a key to achieving transparency.


One way to put a risk in perspective is to examine it in the context of the benefits associated with the technology or process that poses the risk. Another approach that may be helpful is to compare the risk at issue with other similar, more familiar risks. However, this latter approach can create problems if it appears the risk comparisons have been intentionally chosen to make the risk at issue seem more acceptable to the public. In general, risk comparisons should not be used unless:

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