Background: In risk research, there is a developing consensus of the need for greater partnership and dialogue between experts, policymakers, stakeholders and wider publics. A key focus has been the development of participatory processes for management of risk issues, but less attention has been paid to ‘partnership’ in risk communication. Our research furthers this agenda by developing a participatory approach to the communication of UK food chain risks. We have investigated a range of stakeholders’ pre-existing knowledge of food chain risks, in order to anticipate likely responses to communications about such issues.

Methods: Small group interviewing was employed, in concert with a visual research method which we describe as ‘fuzzy felt’. Participants were invited to work together to produce an image of the food chain, including the major risks and mitigating actions involved, while recording their discussions.

Results: Stakeholder groups conceptualised the food chain and food risks in some strikingly different ways. NGO campaigners and members of the public often divided food production into two food chains – one of mainstream and one of ‘alternative’ (organic, fair trade, locally sourced) production, and associated very different levels of risk to each. In contrast, scientists, farmers and food industry representatives tended to see food production as a single chain incorporating all modes of production. These groups also emphasised the importance of systems of managing and mitigating risks in the food chain, and linked this to reduced concern about food risks. Participants also had very different understandings of what constituted ‘risk’ in the food chain. While scientists in particular discussed risk only in terms of factors that cause harm when ingesting a foodstuff, other participants also included broader risk issues. For example, farmers and food industry representatives discussed economic risks, while farmers and campaigners included environmental risks of various kinds. This was also seen with aesthetic/ethical risks (such as animal welfare or the quality/taste of food), which were important to members of the public, campaigners and farmers, but much less so to food industry representatives and scientist/regulators.

Conclusions: These findings may have important implications for the communication of food risks as well as risk communication in general. They highlight the importance of communicating not only about specific risks, but also of improving communication about systems in place for managing those risks. Our findings also suggest that more attention should be paid to differing understandings of what constitutes risk, rather than focusing solely upon expert definitions, and ‘public perceptions’ of risk. If audiences have concerns that they feel are not being addressed, then communications are less likely to be successful. We therefore recommend that communicators pay greater attention to potential variety in understandings of risk amongst stakeholders, and incorporate this into processes of formulating risk communication.

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PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

"So what do you mean by 'risk', anyway?
" Stakeholder knowledge of UK Food Chain Risks

Angela Cassidy   University of Leeds

John Maule   University of Leeds

Background: In risk research, there is a developing consensus of the need for greater partnership and dialogue between experts, policymakers, stakeholders and wider publics. A key focus has been the development of participatory processes for management of risk issues, but less attention has been paid to ‘partnership’ in risk communication. Our research furthers this agenda by developing a participatory approach to the communication of UK food chain risks. We have investigated a range of stakeholders’ pre-existing knowledge of food chain risks, in order to anticipate likely responses to communications about such issues.

Methods: Small group interviewing was employed, in concert with a visual research method which we describe as ‘fuzzy felt’. Participants were invited to work together to produce an image of the food chain, including the major risks and mitigating actions involved, while recording their discussions.

Results: Stakeholder groups conceptualised the food chain and food risks in some strikingly different ways. NGO campaigners and members of the public often divided food production into two food chains – one of mainstream and one of ‘alternative’ (organic, fair trade, locally sourced) production, and associated very different levels of risk to each. In contrast, scientists, farmers and food industry representatives tended to see food production as a single chain incorporating all modes of production. These groups also emphasised the importance of systems of managing and mitigating risks in the food chain, and linked this to reduced concern about food risks. Participants also had very different understandings of what constituted ‘risk’ in the food chain. While scientists in particular discussed risk only in terms of factors that cause harm when ingesting a foodstuff, other participants also included broader risk issues. For example, farmers and food industry representatives discussed economic risks, while farmers and campaigners included environmental risks of various kinds. This was also seen with aesthetic/ethical risks (such as animal welfare or the quality/taste of food), which were important to members of the public, campaigners and farmers, but much less so to food industry representatives and scientist/regulators.

Conclusions: These findings may have important implications for the communication of food risks as well as risk communication in general. They highlight the importance of communicating not only about specific risks, but also of improving communication about systems in place for managing those risks. Our findings also suggest that more attention should be paid to differing understandings of what constitutes risk, rather than focusing solely upon expert definitions, and ‘public perceptions’ of risk. If audiences have concerns that they feel are not being addressed, then communications are less likely to be successful. We therefore recommend that communicators pay greater attention to potential variety in understandings of risk amongst stakeholders, and incorporate this into processes of formulating risk communication.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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