When it comes to food, the German population's risk perception is contradictory. This is one of the findings of the third BfR consumer monitor. On the one hand, almost three quarters of the representatively selected participants interviewed in February 2016 believe that foods offered in the market are safe. On the other hand, more than half of the respondents are concerned about topics such as pesticide residue and microplastics in food, and genetically modified foods, all of which are closely associated with the general issue of food safety.
"This contradictory assessment shows that the context in which consumers are asked about food safety is decisive", said Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), in his comments on the findings of the representative survey of over 1,000 persons in Germany as part of the current BfR Consumer Monitor. "When consumers are asked in the context of general food risks, a majority sees food as safe. However, if the question is put to them in the context of a topic which is publicly discussed predominantly in terms of its risk aspect as is the case with antimicrobial resistance and pesticides, a high degree of concern about food safety becomes apparent."
This shows, once again, that risk perception is influenced by the way topics are portrayed in the media. The BfR consumer monitor is an important instrument allowing the BfR to steer and adjust its risk communication-related activities in response to the topics discussed in the German public sphere. For this reason, a representative survey on the public’s perception of health risks has been conducted on a half-yearly basis since 2014.
According to the latest survey results, consumers rate climate change and / or environmental pollution as the most significant risks to health. They are seen as even worse than smoking. These are followed in their ranking of risks by malnutrition and alcohol consumption. Compared to the previous year, many more people see malnutrition as a health risk than alcohol consumption. In contrast, unhealthy and contaminated foods are seen as somewhat more relevant than in the year before.
As regards awareness levels in relation to topics of consumer health protection, there were major differences compared to 2015. The best known topics are pesticide residue in fruit and vegetables, antimicrobial resistance and mineral oils in personal care products. More than three quarters of respondents are aware of those. Despite its great media presence, only a small proportion of respondents were aware of glyphosate. It is true that the debate on approval of this active ingredient used in pesticides, conducted predominantly in the media, increased public awareness of the issue by four per cent compared to the previous year.
However, in terms of public awareness it is still the lowest-ranking topic among the eight consumer topics mentioned. As regards food safety, respondents were, as had already been the case in 2015, first and foremost concerned about antimicrobial resistance, closely followed by genetically modified foods and pesticide residues. While microbial contamination of food is certainly perceived as an important health risk, significantly fewer participants in this survey are worried about this potential risk than in the previous one. As last year, respondents are least concerned about food hygiene in their own household.
Consumers continue to be sceptical about the safety of certain products. Almost half of the respondents do not believe that textiles, toys and cosmetic products are safe. Compared to the preceding year, consumer scepticism in relation to cosmetic products in particular has increased.
The public perceives the state as playing a central role in consumer health protection and food safety. Over half of the interviewees would even like to see more measures such as bans and strict regulations in order to make foods safer and protect consumers. In addition, government institutions should provide objective and reliable information to help individuals protect themselves better. Only one tenth of respondents think that they can adequately protect themselves even without government institutions.