Public apathy has set in over the safety of the food supply due to the soaring number of scares and recalls, according to a UK survey.
The implications are that companies need to do more to regain trust said Chris Woodcock, managing director of Razor Public Relations, which conducted the survey.
"It clearly indicates that more proactive risk management and reputation-building work needs to be done to recover trust and overcome the scepticism, particularly following some high-profile brand incidents in the first half of 2007," he said.
About 67 per cent of shoppers said they are hardly aware of national product alerts, according to Razor, which conducted the survey this month. Razor also found that only 17 per cent of UK consumers trust a manufacturer or reailer to give them accurate information on the scare or recall.
Processors and government may feel it is both their legal and moral responsibility to "tell it all and tell it fast" whenever a product emerges as a threat to human safety - especially if it is a food or drink and however theoretical the risk, Razor stated.
However the survey's statistics indicate that the approach to public alerts and recalls adopted by manufacturers and government advisory bodies may not be the correct way.
"Ironically, as the EU and UK regulatory and advisory authorities report soaring numbers of recall and safety reports in the last year, their effectiveness in terms of consumer safety seems to be diminishing as consumer apathy sets in," Razor Public Relations said in reporting on its survey.
The survey also found that 38 per cent cited regulatory bodies or independent authorities as the source they trust the most for product safety advice and information.
While only 17 per cent said they would trust a manufacturer's advice, 15 per cent said they would turn to the media for their information, and 13 per cent said they would trust the retailer.
The declining trust is mirrored by the low trust in the safety in the food supply. About 21 per cent of the survey sample said they feel less confident about food safety now than they did a year ago and 16 per cent said they "don't care about such alerts and don't take any notice of them".
The UK's Food Standards Agency investigated about 1,300 food safety incidents last year. Yet the survey shows only the minority of these, that progress into full-blown recalls, are getting the message across, said Woodcock.
In the last year to spring 2007, the Food Standards Agency dealt with 81 food alerts issued to local authorities and 478 notifications to the European Commission, through the EU's rapid alert system.
Other recent industry data demonstrates that recalls are also becoming increasingly international, with 48 per cent of European recalls involving products made in China, Woodcock said.
However the survey shows that the sheer volume of recalls and warnings is increasingly falling on deaf ears, he said.
"Although the advisory bodies might be mildly encouraged by our findings, this is a sharp blow for FMCG (Fast moving consumer goods) brands who have built up brand equity over many decades and who can suffer major dents in sales and loyalty as a result of recalls or other incidents," he said.
There are various reasons why product alert notifications are increasing, including the 2005 product safety legislation forcing manufacturers to be responsible for informing the authorities and consumers of any potential risk from their products.
In addition companies feel they need to live up to their corporate and social responsibility commitments, by doing - and being seen to do - the right thing, he said.
EU legislation that came into effect in 2002 required more public alert reporting and established new procedures in food safety back in 2002. Articles in the legislation relating to traceability and transparency forced manufacturers to be more open about product recalls, Woodcock noted.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established a new advisory committee last month to counsel the regulator on how to strengthen the communication to the public.
The advisory body will ake recommendations to the FDA on what current research suggests about crafting risk and benefit messages, as well as how to most effectively communicate specific product information.
"There is an obligation for legal and regulatory compliance, that manufacturers are heeding," Woodcock stated. "But there is also a much greater need for pre-emptive risk management work to prevent incidents arising or to mitigate their effects, both on the consumer and on the brand, when they do occur."
The UK survey was carried out on 1,000 people above the age of 16 over the weekend of 13 to 15 July 2007 by independent research body, BMRB International.