Safe and sound: assessing the risk?
The European Food Safety Agency needs to do more than merely quantify risk; it needs to consider how risk is effectively communicated, says Julie Girling.
Julie Girling | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual
Undertaking uncertainty analysis - and how that information is communicated– is something that should be better understood by the public. The reason is that such communication has a direct impact on our daily lives; specifically on the potential risk form the food that we eat.
Everything we do has an element of risk; it’s part of human life. This includes the food and drink we consume, that we eat, ranging from water – usually very safe – to eating pufferfish sushi – potentially dangerous. Yet if we know and understand the level of risk involved, we are in a position to take a considered judgement.
Europe’s citizens look to the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) to assess the risk and determine what meets public expectations. This is a good thing, and no one doubts the need for a strong body to ensure food safety for European citizens, and EFSA has done an excellent job in improving public confidence in what we eat following a number of scares.
Recently EFSA has introduced proposals on how its future scientific opinions should deal with the issue of uncertainty in risk. On initial inspection, this unilaterally seems like a good move. It’s important that people understand that people understand that risk is not absolute. However, as it currently stands, EFSA is proposing that for every opinion that it issues, there should be - for a trial period of a year – an accompanying statement of the uncertainties surrounding the opinion. Again, on initial inspection, that seems both sensible and reasonable. This is important; we all need to know whether there is any significant doubt over the conclusions.
However, in their efforts to be transparent about the fact that there are uncertainties in its risk analysis, EFSA is failing to effectively explain what those uncertainties actually mean. This makes it increasingly difficult for risk managers and the risk communicators to explain what this really means for the public.
This why I am concerned that EFSA’s proposals risk making future advice less, rather than more, effective. For this reason, I believe it needs to think further about how its new proposals work in practice. I welcome any move that seeks to improve risk communication to the wider public; this is an important step in restoring trust in scientific and political bodies. However, merely communicating that uncertainty exists is potentially counterproductive; it needs context to reassure the public that that this is a normal part of scientific assessment, not something to fear. Such measures need to be accompanied by better explanations for risk managers – including policy-makers, as to why specific actions are being pursued. The Commission and the Parliament have a role to play in explaining why they pursue certain policies following receipt of EFSA's opinions.
There is an understandable concern that EFSA’s pursuit of this uncertainty analysis policy may driven by a desire to demonstrate in-house Agency transparency and openness politics rather than by evidence-based policy making. The former executive director of EFSA, Geoffrey Podger, agrees. He says that; “EFSA is barking up the wrong tree with its approach to uncertainty analysis. Of course scientific opinions should make clear where any significant uncertainties lie. However, the problem with EFSA’s proposal is that its statements of uncertainty will be detached from the main opinion and written for statisticians, not the informed layperson.”
Podger believes that, as currently proposed, will add more heat than light to debate. By drawing attention to the uncertainties surrounding its advice, it merely questions the validity of the conclusions and provides ammunition for unreasoned, unscientific criticism.
Given the rise of social media and issue driven campaigns, this is a potentially treacherous path to follow. It is one that risks undermining, Rather than enhancing public confidence, it risks undermining it.
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