Healthier food supply: what you worry about and what makes you sick is not the same


Food that nourishes can also sicken and kill. Last year saw the publication of the first global assessment of foodborne disease by the World Health Organization. And the results were troubling: the 31 hazards studied caused at least 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths in 2010. This is similar to the burden caused by malaria, tuberculosis or HIV and AIDS: the so-called “Big Three” diseases that are responsible for much of the infectious disease burden in low and middle income countries.

But although more and more is known about the serious health impacts of foodborne disease, important questions remain un-answered. The great majority of the known burden of foodborne disease is due to infectious agents: that is, bacteria, parasites and viruses. However, it is relatively straightforward to understand and measure how infectious agents cause disease, but it is much more complicated to assess the long-term effects of chronic exposure to novel chemicals, never before encountered in nature.  Many people are concerned about unforeseen and perhaps unforeseeable effects of novel chemical compounds in our food, or genetically modified organisms. However, very few people worry about the enormous array of natural toxins found in the herbs and vegetables we are urged to eat. And this reveals a curious feature about how we perceive risk: what people worry about, and what experts consider the most important risks, are often not the same.

In an increasingly complex world, we increasingly rely on experts for advice. Studies of experts have shown that while some are remarkably accurate (for example, weather forecasters and livestock judges) others are remarkably inaccurate (for example, stockbrokers and court judges). Fortunately, risk assessors seem to be quite good at making accurate assessments of health risks: unfortunately, these assessments are rarely believed by the general public.

For example, there is remarkable consistency from scientists and expert bodies that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, and yet in many countries, most of the public are skeptical about them. To give another example, surveys tend to find that consumers are most worried about chemicals and toxins, and yet, as the World Health Organization study showed, the burden of disease caused by these is many times smaller than the disease caused by infectious agents. On the other hand, health experts are very concerned about the diseases associated with over-consumption, risks the general public tends to under-estimate, at least as shown by their consumption behaviour.

Risk perception is complex and driven only partly by factual evidence. Food technologies often involve “fear factors” that make them seem more worrisome than other risks (for example, riding a bicycle). These include distrust of large companies, dislike of “unnatural” processes and uncertainty over unfamiliar dangers. Risks that accompany benefits to the consumer (e.g. convenience food) are often found more acceptable than risks where benefits accrue to the food industry. People tend to worry more about risks caused by factors over which they feel to have no control, while being much less concerned about factors linked to their own behavior. People are quite poor at seeking better evidence on risks and more influenced by negative than positive news.

The marked difference in how experts and the public view food safety risks has real world consequences: opportunities are lost and scarce resources are spent managing minor problems, while the major ones go to the back of the queue. Effective regulation of risk, hence, poses a singular challenge to democracy, and our natural tendencies to mis-perceive risk need to be countered by better evidence, not only on risks, but on the psychology of risk perception.

Hence a new publication on “Policy Options for a Healthier Food Supply” is timely. This brief was produced by the ‘Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition’, an independent group of influential experts with a commitment to tackling global challenges in food and nutrition security. It summarises recent evidence on the burden of foodborne disease and emphasizes links between food safety and nutrition and makes policy recommendations across the range of food system stakeholders.

By Delia Grace

Delia Grace is a veterinary epidemiologist who leads research on both ‘food safety and zoonoses’ at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and ‘agriculture-associated diseases’, a flagship project of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH)


 Download the policy brief “Assuring Safe Food Systems”

Read also: ‘Activating Our Pledge for Optimal Safety of African Food Systems‘, by Mohamed Ag Bendech and Mawuli Sablah, FAO Regional Office for Africa

Image: CIFOR