Risk Messages

Risk messages are only a part of the interactive risk communication process and are often designed to inform the public about food safety risks. Due to the highly technical nature of the subject matter, the task of formulating food safety risk messages that are clear, accurate, and not misleading is a challenging one. Complex language and technical jargon are commonly used in risk messages, leading to information that is often incomprehensible to the public. Effective risk messages should be developed using clear and plain language and should transmit relevant information in addition to recommending practical actions that the public can take (1).

Effective risk communication requires communicators to recognize and overcome several obstacles that are rooted in the limitations of scientific risk assessment and in public understanding. Technical barriers to effective risk communication include the need to make assumptions and subjective judgments in the risk assessment process. In the risk assessment of a food chemical there is a need to consider any possible gaps in knowledge that will lead to uncertainties in the risk estimates (3). Uncertainties frequently arise from the use of animal models in the risk assessment process. Typical human health risk assessments rely on results from laboratory animal studies that must be extrapolated to humans. Evaluating results from toxicology studies where chemicals are administered to laboratory animals at a very high dose requires extrapolation to humans exposed to a low dose, sometimes over a lifetime, generating different levels of uncertainty. According to Young (4), the greater the uncertainty about a given effect, the more likely it is to be overestimated. Experts often adopt measures based on conservative assumptions, which provides a tendency to dramatically overestimate the predicted levels of risk (5).

Risk messages should present a clear explanation of the scientific evidence, including data gaps, significance of uncertainties, and possible differences in opinion among experts. In formulating risk messages it is important to be truthful and to discuss practical factors to be considered for risk management/control. Risk communicators should explain steps to be followed for risk reduction or, when applicable, address possible consequences (health, economic) resulting from risk control measures. The common views of experts should be expressed, and consumer concerns need to be considered (6). Nonetheless, consumer reaction to food safety risk messages may often involve misunderstanding of the scientific facts and may lead to general distrust of those providing the messages.

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