Risk assessment and risk communication: Good rating for BfR

According to the German population consumer health protection continues to be a central task of the state. This is one of the results of the second representative survey of the German population concerning familiarity with the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. The survey was part of a study in which 400 experts from science, politics, industry, consumer associations and the media were interviewed in addition to 1,000 representatively selected citizens. "The results are positive", says BfR President Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "We have considerably improved familiarity with our institution amongst our target groups. We are also far better known amongst the population at large than was the case in the first survey four years ago. Furthermore, our work is rated as good by both experts and lay persons". However, some ground has to be made up in the field of press and public relations. The Institute should seek to further improve its position amongst media representatives - as the institution in Germany that assesses the health risks of foods and consumer goods on the basis of scientific criteria, free from political and economic interests.

The Agency for Market and Social Research “aproxima” in Weimar was commissioned to undertake the “Second evaluation of familiarity with the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment”. In the spring of 2008 it interviewed representatively selected citizens and representatives of science, politics, industry, consumer associations and media about the institutions, tasks, sources of information and particularly relevant themes of consumer health protection.

The first set of questions focused on the attitude of the respondents to consumer health protection. Both the general population and the special target groups of BfR were of the opinion that health protection is a central task of the state. However, they did set differing priorities when it came to the biggest health risks to themselves. The general population saw the field environmental pollution, radiation and climate change followed by food and the costs and services in the health care system as the three biggest risks to health. By contrast, the interviewed experts put an unhealthy lifestyle in first place followed by field environmental pollution, climate change and radiation. Food was in third place. Both groups put cardiovascular disease - the most frequent cause of death in Germany today - in the bottom places when classifying the biggest health risks. Questions were also put about the sources used by the citizens and experts to obtain information on consumer health protection topics. The result: mass media are the main information channels for both groups followed by the specialist media. For the general population doctors are another important source of information whereas for experts the professional environment, specialist associations and the Internet came third in the ranking of information sources. Citizens, in particular young people, favour the Internet for information on consumer health protection.

One key issue in the survey was the degree of familiarity with BfR compared to the first survey in 2004. It emerged that, compared to 2004, BfR is far better known amongst the population at large and amongst the target groups. Just under 16 percent of the citizens interviewed were familiar with the name, BfR, and just under 79 percent knew that the Institute was involved in food safety and the risk assessment of products. 79 percent of the representatives of the target groups were familiar with the name and 50 percent of the respondents were familiar with the tasks of the Institute. The best informed group from this circle were representatives of business and consumer associations, followed by politics and science. In contrast to the 2004 survey, the media representatives in the comparison of target groups surprisingly felt that they were the least well informed. Another important question was how the quality of BfR’s work was assessed. The population was, in principle, happy with its work and the representatives of the target groups even rated it as “good” whereby political representatives gave the Institute’s work the best rating. The “Second Evaluation of Familiarity with the Institute for Risk Assessment” can be accessed on the BfR website.

The proceedings of the ceremony to mark the fifth anniversary of BfR entitled “Do ‘perceived risks’ justify state action?” have now also been published. According to this publication, besides the purely scientific findings on the scale of a health risk, consideration must also be given to the largely unfounded (from the scientific angle) but nevertheless real fears of the population. To avoid undesirable consequences, state action is also required in the case of “perceived” risks. But that doesn’t mean that no efforts should be undertaken to explain the scientific point of view to a broad public in a comprehensible manner and to take decisions on the basis of scientific criteria. The proceedings in german language can be ordered from the BfR Press Office (for a fee of € 10) or can be downloaded from the BfR website.

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