Perceived risks also require state intervention

Even if the health risk from foods or products is deemed to be low from the scientific angle, the state may be forced to intervene if the public perceives the risk to be high. This was the general consensus amongst the about 200 participants invited by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) to a conference in Berlin to mark its fifth anniversary. The question which they were asked to answer was “Do perceived risks justify state intervention?” The response from the representatives of political circles, industry, science, associations and non-governmental organisations was very clear. Besides purely scientific findings on the scale of a health risk, politicians must also consider, in their decision-making processes, other protection areas and legally protected rights like economic interests, loss of confidence in public institutions and the concrete fears of the population even if they are unfounded from the scientific point of view. BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel pointed out in his welcome address that “Almost every perceived health risk can quickly develop into a concrete risk”. He added, “Besides the scientific assessment of risks and the ensuing measures, open and comprehensible risk communication must be the third pillar when dealing with risks.” That’s why the legislator quite consciously included the independent communication of results in the catalogue of tasks of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in addition to the independent scientific assessment of risks.

From the scientific angle a risk describes the probability that damage will occur which is largely dependent on the hazard potential and exposure. By contrast, perceived risks occur because people do not understand or misinterpret the results of scientific risk assessment based on mathematics and statistics due to the fact that efforts to communicate them in a clear yet differentiated manner have clearly failed. At the same time, people are under the illusion that risks and with it uncertainties can be overcome if the technological and administrative effort is big enough. Both of these situations can lead to fears of risks which are very low or negligible in the opinion of scientists. In extreme cases, the perceived risk which is heightened through this fear factor can itself lead to behaviour which may prove harmful to health.

For instance, the perceived risk arising from pesticide residues in foods is widespread amongst German consumers. Even when statutory maximum levels for residues are complied with, many people still fear damage to their health from consumption of these foods. From the scientific angle, however, even the sporadic exceeding of maximum levels does not point to any health risk. Nevertheless if, certain pesticides like for instance fungicides are not applied during the cultivation of cereals, mould toxins may reach the corn through fungal attack. These fungal toxins are known to trigger cancer. Hence, because of the possible contamination with these toxins, cereal products from pesticide-free cultivation are by no means automatically free of health risks from the scientific angle. All the same, many consumers still feel they are safe.

Perceived, i.e. non-scientifically substantiated risks are part of daily life and shape people’s everyday behaviour. For politicians they are real and should not be ignored. In order to avoid crises, state intervention is also needed in conjunction with perceived risks. Open, comprehensible risk communication, which takes into account the position of science on the one hand and the positions of the various stakeholders on the other in risk discussions, is of key importance. Besides the scientific findings on which risk assessment is based, it is important for the gaps in knowledge and uncertainties in the interpretation of scientific data to be disclosed. This was not always the case in the past, for instance when handling BSE and led to a loss of confidence in consumer health protection institutions. BfR does not wish to repeat the mistakes of the past. “Through our Risk Communication Department, in which we combine social science know-how with natural science findings, we wish to promote an open dialogue based on trust between science, political circles and the various social interest groups”, explained BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel at the BfR anniversary conference. “Communication tools like the BfR Consumer Conferences and Stakeholder Fora on subjects like the possible risks of nanotechnology and natural plant ingredients in foods help to return perceived risks to its rational, i.e. scientifically justifiable nucleus.”

Besides this stakeholder event, BfR also celebrated its fifth anniversary on 8 November with a Science Day and on 9 November 2007 with around 200 pupils from Berlin grammar schools. They discussed with experts from the Federal Institute, the Berlin Senat and the official food control authorities what consumer health protection really is and how science can protect consumers.

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