A snapshot survey of consumer perceptions of food risk in the UK indicates that many people are way off the mark, prompting the FSA to seek out constructive ways of engaging with the public over concerns.
The survey, which involved 2,019 adults aged over the age of 16, set out to assess the level of risk that consumers associate with food-related issues and who consumers trust most to provide them with accurate information. It was conducted in advance of the first meeting of the FSA's new General Advisory Committee on Science, to take place tomorrow.
Professor Colin Blakemore, chair of the FSA's new committee, expressed concern at the results, which included 90 per cent of people being unnecessarily concerned about eating chicken from a factory contaminated with bird 'flu, and almost a quarter wrongly believing there is little or no risk from drinking raw (unpasturised) milk.
He said that it is worrying that people seem to listen more to advice about food safety from their friends and family members than from scientists. While most people said they would trust a health professional first, 48 per cent said they would trust friends and family, over 42 per cent who said an independent scientist.
"It's clear that scientists need to communicate reliable evidence in a way that everyone can understand and to find constructive ways of engaging with the public on areas of concern," said Blakemore.
"It's a challenge the Food Standards Agency will have to rise to."
A spokesperson for the FSA told FoodNavigator.com that such communication forms part of the new committee's remit, but it is part of a broader issue the agency deals with on a day-to-day basis.
It is, clearly, not always easy to communicate scientific findings in such a way as the underlying message is understood by the public.
For instance, the media furore over the publication of the Southampton study linking certain food additives to hyperactivity in children was way out of step with the FSA's interpretation and subsequent advice on the study.
Its advice - which came in for far-reaching criticism from the media and consumer groups - that eliminating certain additives from the diet of children affected by hyperactivity could help.
The spokesperson said the agency would like to be seen as a reliable source of science, with its advice based on peer reviewed studies and placed in context.
- Bird 'flu
Contrary to the belief of the 90 per cent, the FSA says that there is no evidence that humans can catch bird 'flu from food - and, in any case, proper cooking would kill the disease before it reached the plate.
- Raw milk
As for raw milk, the FSA said it cannot be guaranteed to be germ-free, no matter how high the hygiene standards. One study cited from 1995-6 reportedly found faecal matter in 60 per cent of samples.
Sixty-five per cent of people said they were concerned about the safety of consuming GM food - a particularly controversial point as the anti-GM lobby is very vocal on the risks it perceives to exist.
"The scientific evidence tells us that the GM foods currently available are as safe as their non-GM counterparts, and pose no additional risk to the consumer," said the FSA. It did, however, point out that there is general agreement that GM foods should be labelled to allow for consumer choice.
There were also some positive findings from the survey, however, which indicate the effectiveness of some of FSA's awareness campaigns.
For instance, 63 per cent said they considered eating beef to be of negligible or no concern - a finding in keeping with the huge drop in BSE cases in the UK in the last 15 years (53 in 2007, compared to over 36,000 in 1992).
Eighty-nine per cent of people said they associated eating to much salt with a risk - and, indeed, excess salt consumption is linked to high blood pressure.