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Effective communication about food-related health risks requires more than just an understanding of the risks in the context of the risk assessment and risk management processes. Barriers to risk communication exist and recognizing those barriers and knowing how to overcome them are essential for effective risk communication.

Three categories of barriers to effective communication are addressed here. The first two include institutional and procedural barriers that can limit communication within the risk analysis process itself. Communication barriers in the third category apply to all contexts, and especially to efforts by the expert community to communicate with the general public and other interested parties about food-related health risks.

Barriers within the risk analysis process

Communication plays a vital role throughout the risk analysis process to assure that risk management strategies effectively minimize foodborne risks to public health. Many communication steps in the process are internal, iterative exchanges between risk managers and risk assessors. Two key steps - hazard identification and selection of risk management options - require risk communication with all interested parties to help improve the transparency of decisions and increase the potential level of the acceptance of the outcomes.

Access to information

Vital information needed to carry out the risk analysis process may not always be made available by those who possess it. Occasionally, industry or other private parties may have proprietary information about a risk, which they are reluctant to share with government agencies because of a need to protect their competitive position or for other business reasons. In other instances, government agencies may be unwilling to openly discuss facts they possess about food risks for a variety of reasons. Complete access to all relevant data about a food-related health risk, both for risk managers and for other interested parties, may not exist in all situations. Lack of access to critical data about a risk makes the communication steps involved in hazard identification and risk management even more difficult.

Participation in the process

Lack of participation in the risk analysis process by those parties having a significant interest in the outcome, can be an important barrier to effective communication about the risk. Broad participation in the process improves risk communication by presenting opportunities to identify and address the concerns of interested parties when decisions are made. It increases the overall understanding of the process and the decisions, and makes it easier to communicate later with the public about those decisions. Those who were involved in the decision-making process are less likely to challenge the outcome, especially if their concerns have been addressed.

The Codex has made an effort to involve all interested parties in the risk analysis process. For example, at its 22nd Session in June 1997 (6), the CAC unanimously agreed on the importance of risk analysis in Codex work and adopted an Action Plan for Codex-wide Development and Application of Risk Analysis Principles and Guidelines. This Action Plan is detailed in Annex 3. Despite these efforts, effective participation in the process by all interested parties has not been an easy goal to achieve. In general, governments and industry, at least from the industrialized nations, have been well represented, while many developing countries and consumer organizations have been under-represented in the risk analysis process. In theory, wider participation in the risk analysis process is more feasible at the national level than at the international level, but many national governments have not yet established mechanisms for involving all interested parties in the critical steps of risk analysis.

Some reasons for non-participation are external to the process itself. For example, most consumer organizations and some governments lack experienced, knowledgeable food safety specialists who can play effective roles in risk analysis. In some cases it is a lack of resources that prevents support for ongoing participation in international decision-making processes. There are also some barriers to participation within key steps of the risk analysis process itself. For example, certain critical sessions at which key decisions are made, such as meetings of JMPR and JECFA and the Executive Committee of the Codex Alimentarius, are closed to observers. While there are historical and administrative reasons why this is so, excluding interested parties from vital steps of the process is a communication barrier.

This barrier can be overcome through continuing and increasing efforts now being made by FAO, WHO and the Codex to involve consumer organizations and other interested parties more effectively in food safety risk analysis processes, especially at the international level. Consumer organizations should increase their efforts to identify and nominate experts for consideration as participants for international expert advisory committees. Training programmes can be designed to provide the knowledge and skills needed for representatives from non-participating governments, consumer organizations and other interested sectors to participate effectively in risk analysis processes at the national and international levels.

Barriers within the Codex process

The workload of some Codex committees has increased while budgetary resources have remained fixed or shrunk, with a result that there is sometimes insufficient time during sessions to fully discuss the many agenda items. Many Codex documents are not available far enough in advance of meetings, and reports on Codex sessions tend to focus on what was decided, rather than how it was decided, which often leaves the basis for decisions unclear. At its 22nd Session (6), the CAC recognized these problems and expressed concern that reducing the duration of Codex sessions (proposed for budgetary reasons) would not allow sufficient time for consideration of the matters in question and that limiting the length of Codex meeting reports would make them less useful for understanding how positions were reached. This in turn could decrease the transparency and efficiency of Codex work.

Also at the 22nd Session, the CAC agreed to evaluate the application of “legitimate factors” other than science in adopting maximum residue limits for a specific veterinary drug. The lack of a general policy guideline on the application of factors other than science, in risk analysis, has been a barrier to communication as this results in a lack of clarity over which issues are or are not within the scope of Codex deliberations.

Elaboration of a policy on what legitimate factors other than science may be considered in risk analysis is a critical step towards removing this barrier and improving the context for risk communication in Codex. Efforts to improve the timeliness of documents might be increased, and the style of reports of meetings could be amended to explain more clearly the basis for decisions.

Barriers to communication in all contexts

Many barriers to risk communication are not specific to the food safety risk analysis process, but reflect difficulties intrinsic to most efforts to communicate about complex technical and value-laden issues. There is a large literature of academic research on the subject of risk communication and why it succeeds or fails in different circumstances. This report highlights some major themes of this body of knowledge. Those seeking more detailed information are encouraged to consult references provided in the bibliography attached to this report as Annex 4.

Differences in perceptions

Individuals can perceive the risk from the same hazard very differently. Some of the public may disagree with risk assessors and managers regarding important hazard characteristics, the relative magnitude or severity of the risks associated with those hazards, the priority of risks, and other issues. Other segments of the public also may not pay attention to risk information if the message does not address their actual concerns, but instead addresses only technical risk assessments provided by the experts. For example, a low-risk hazard that some people perceive to be involuntarily imposed upon them, may appear more threatening than another, perhaps higher-risk hazard that those same individuals perceive to be under their personal choice and control.

The effectiveness of risk communication can be enhanced by efforts to establish dialogues with interested parties and the general public, through open meetings, focus groups, surveys and other methods. The goal of this effort should be to gain an understanding of how the public and other interested parties perceive the risk.

Differences in receptivity

Many individuals believe they are personally less at risk from a given hazard than other people are, and perceive that risk messages concerning, for example, nutritional and food hygiene hazards are directed towards other people. Some people also tend to believe that they personally are more knowledgeable than the average member of society is, and will ignore risk messages they believe are directed toward less informed people. Also, some risk-taking behaviours may be perceived as normal or desirable within particular groups, and members of these groups may therefore discount risk messages as inappropriate.

To communicate effectively with such unreceptive groups, it is essential to understand their attitudes, beliefs and concerns, and to address those concerns in risk communication messages.

Lack of understanding of the scientific process

Over-reliance on precise scientific terminology may obscure the meaning of facts for the general public. If messages are not kept relatively simple, they may be misunderstood. Unless scientific uncertainties are acknowledged and put into context, the public may not gain an accurate perception of what is and is not known about the risk. Also, unless value judgements that are necessary components of risk assessments and risk management decisions are explicitly stated, the public may not grasp the basis for decisions that are made. Public attitudes, once formed, are difficult to change as people tend to select information which supports already held beliefs.

To overcome these barriers, risk communicators should use non-technical terms to the greatest extent possible, and explain the technical terms that are used. Non-technical people should review proposed messages for clarity. Communicators should try to minimize the differences between themselves and the public and should address any uncertainties and value judgements involved in the risk analysis, both explicitly and clearly.

Source credibility

The public does not equally trust all sources of information about food safety. In situations where different risk messages are received from different sources, the public will respond to the messages from the more credible source and discount the messages from the other sources.

Factors that enhance trust and credibility include public perceptions of the communicator's accuracy, knowledge and concern for public welfare. Addressing the public's concerns about risk will also facilitate trust. Distrust is associated with perceptions of bias or with failure by the communicator to provide accurate information in the past. Trust is more important under conditions of great uncertainty or when the public believes that accurate estimates of risk are unavailable. Trust also depends on the extent to which the risk assessment and risk management processes are believed to be transparent and open to public scrutiny. Once lost, trust is not easily regained. Communication is generally most effective when all sources, including those trusted most by the public, convey similar messages about the risk.

The media

The public generally gets their information on food safety issues from the media, as with other topics. Sometimes the mass media do not accurately convey risk information. Relatively few reporters have much experience with the complex scientific and policy aspects of food safety issues, and it can be difficult for them to prepare a story on highly technical matters, especially under deadline pressure. The media also have their own agenda and make their own independent judgements on what is newsworthy. It often may appear to risk managers and other technical experts that the news media focus unduly on conflict and controversy, and occasionally they sensationalize or exaggerate risks in order to draw attention to the story. While problems with media coverage of food-related risks are by no means universal, when they do occur they can make communication about risk more difficult.

Risk managers and others who serve as risk communicators often are not familiar enough with the media to understand how to work with reporters to enhance the quality and accuracy of media reports. During a food safety emergency, in particular, the urgency of the hazard and the high level of public anxiety tend to promote more co-operative relationships between media and risk managers, but communication problems may still occur.

Risk communicators need training in media skills and should work to establish long-term relationships with members of the media. In planning for, or responding to, emergency situations, it is essential to include a person responsible for the media on any crisis response team. In those situations where certain necessary information is not considered newsworthy by the media and is therefore not disseminated by them, the authorities can still get the information to the public by considering the use of paid advertisements or public service announcements.

Societal characteristics

Some barriers to risk communication are not associated with attributes of the senders or receivers of risk information or with the medium or the message itself, but with the nature of the society in which the communication occurs. Societal factors that can make risk communication more difficult include language differences, cultural factors, religious dietary laws, illiteracy, poverty, a lack of legal, technical and policy resources and a lack of infrastructures that support communication. These and other factors vary within countries and from one country to another.

Societal barriers to communication may be especially acute in those countries, where, in addition to the foregoing factors, there are extreme differences in socio-economic status among groups. Hunger and malnutrition may relegate food safety to secondary status among food-related concerns. Other barriers include physical or geographic ones - some geographic areas or groups of people can be physically inaccessible to risk communicators. Also, free exchange of information may be limited by political constraints.

To the extent possible, cultural and social attributes that hamper risk communication need to be identified and addressed, as part of the process of designing messages for target audiences. Targeted messages such as displays, posters and leaflets at market places, health centres, schools, bus terminals and the like can be used as suited to local social norms. In some countries, general improvements in the economic and social well-being of the citizens, including progress in alleviating poverty, increasing personal and political freedom, expanding access to education and information for all sectors, community involvement and ongoing training of key personnel, can all contribute to improved risk communication. Enhancing the status of rural women is likely to be a particularly effective social strategy for enhancing food safety communication.

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