Monday, November 15, 2010

Do you really understand what's unsafe about your food?

There is a lot of concern about the safety of food.  There is also a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding.  Most of us have some concept of the dangers of the modern world, but our perception of risk, i.e. the probability that the hazard will become manifest, is often wide of the mark, perhaps influenced by publicity. 

For example, most of us know that smoking is hazardous and that the risk of lung cancer and heart disease associated with smoking is high.  Ask someone about the risk of flying in an airliner.  If there has been a crash in the recent past, they may respond that flying is a high risk activity.  The truth is that flying on a scheduled commercial flight is very safe.  It's just that if an airliner crashes, it makes the news headlines all around the world, which influences our thinking.

Quite a long time ago, so long that I can't find the original reference, a few simple questions were put to food consumers.  Food scientists assessed the actual risks.  These people were asked "What is the food safety risk posed by the following?"  What would your responses be?

Risk factor                            Perceived risk                    Actual risk


Microbial contamination              Low                                  High

Packaging failure                         Low                                 High

Pesticide residues                       Medium                            Low

Irradiation                                   High                               Very low


Recent events in the USA may have changed your perception, at least with respect to microbial contamination.

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