How safe is food and which sources of information are reliable?

Opinion poll in Italy

In the last years, citizens of the European Union have been plagued by several food scandals of which the BSE scandal was the most dramatic. The European Commission has become more concerned about "food safety" and has initiated an information campaign.

In April 2000 the Italian Institute of Food Research and Nutrition (INRAN) carried out an opinion poll on what Italian consumers thought about the situation at that time. Virtually every Italian had heard about BSE or "mad cow" disease. People were also very much aware of the cases of food-born botulism and salmonella that had occurred in Italy shortly before the poll, as well as the discovery of dioxin-contaminated poultry and eggs in Belgium. Thus, it was not surprising that they rated meat and eggs to be unsafe foods. Nine out of ten Italians had also heard about traces of pesticides in food. But this danger was perceived to be restricted mainly to fruits and vegetables, while cereals and cereal products were thought to be comparatively safe. Anna Saba, the leader of the study, said that, "Although there was an intensive discussion in the media about genetic engineering and genetic manipulation of foods, I was surprised that every third participant in the poll knew nothing about the subject." Also, only half of the respondents had heard anything about irradiation of foods.

Most of the respondents got their information about food safety through the mass media, the preponderance coming through watching television. The next important source of information was family and friends. Only every fifth person was satisfied with the information given by his or her personal doctor. 43% claimed that they had not received any information through medical sources, while another 37% considered the information to be of very poor quality. With regard to the strong media coverage of the food scandals, half of the respondents tended to assume that there was a higher food-associated risk today than was the case e.g. 15 years ago. On the other hand 27% of the respondents disagreed with this opinion.

Most of the respondents strongly agreed that the food industry (71%), the European Commission (64%), and the government (63%) are responsible for food safety assurance rather than the food retailers (23%) or the consumers themselves (22%). At the same time, Italians put little trust in information given by their government. They relied even less on information given through the mass media. In contrast to this, consumer organisations, research institutes, and environmental organisations were highly respected. Most Italian consumers considered these organisations to be the "most trustworthy", "most knowledgeable concerning risks associated with food-related hazards", "most concerned with protecting the health and safety of citizens", and "most honest in terms of completeness of information".



Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca per gli Alimenti e la Nutrizone

Roma, Italy

Anna Saba

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