Public trust and food-related risks – is the answer staring us right in the face?

By Brogan Micallef

Why are some individuals and organisations trusted as sources of risk information whilst others are not? This is one of the major questions that is commonly dealt with in risk communication. It is particularly important to have the public’s trust if you are communicating a food-related (or any kind of) risk because people are extremely unlikely to change their behaviour if they don’t trust you.

Generally speaking, it has been demonstrated that the public distrusts sources that are seen to be biased or self-serving, or have a vested interest in a particular point of view. For example, even though KFC says they use real Steggles chicken, I often find myself wondering if they really do, mostly because the ads are run by KFC themselves. Although I generally trust Steggles, do I in this instance? Not really, because they have a vested interest in KFC.

Although the KFC debate isn’t a food-related ‘risk’, what about the debates that are? High fat diets, using microwaves and genetic engineering have all been reported in the media. If the public don’t trust the information source, they could be damaging their health with a high fat diet, or industry could lose out on the GM debate.

Interestingly, Frewer et al. (1995) found that the most highly trusted sources are seen to be

“…moderately accountable to others, to have a partial vested interest in promoting a particular view, and to be reasonably self-protective. Total absence of such characteristics allows for sensationalization (sic) of information.” (pg. 483, emphasis mine)

As the author’s realised, this does not support the results of previous studies. It also demonstrates that the relationship between public trust and the source of information is much more complex than originally thought. Too much vested interest and the source is biased. Too little accountability and you’re not being honest. You have to get it just right. Remind you of Goldilocks and her porridge dilemma?  To further complicate the matter, Frewer et al. stated that different characteristics apply to different information sources. Not only do you have to get it right, it seems that the balance changes with the situation. The medical profession needs to have a vested interest in public welfare, but GM producers promoting their product? That’s a bit iffy. They’re biased aren’t they?

Although it has been argued that the way to overcome the trust-distrust barrier is to increase the scientific literacy of the public, the scale and level to which this would have to be achieved is unreasonable. Not everybody has the capability, opportunity or interest in becoming an expert in all new aspects of science and technology. The study revealed that

“…scientists, medical sources, radio and consumer organisations were all named as trusted…sources. However, they were infrequently named by respondents as important sources of food-related information.” (pg. 475, emphasis mine)

Isn’t the answer right in front of us? Perhaps it is easier to use institutions and individuals that are already trusted, than for distrusted groups to try to improve their level of public trust. We’ve seen how complicated it is to get that balance right. Won’t people always be concerned about the ‘private agenda’ of the government or a particular industry? It seems a waste to not exploit already trusted sources with regards to food-related risk communication. Who knows what might be achieved?

Reference: Frewer, L. J., C. Howard., D. Hedderley, and R. Shepherd. 1995. What determines trust in information about food-related risks? Underlying psychological constructs. Risk Analysis 16(4): 473-486.


6 comments so far

  1. ankevaneekelen on

    Brogan, nicely written blog with a clear build-up to make your argument on behalf of the authors. I still wonder what the answer right in front of us is, though?

    I guess you refer those institutions that have earned credit over the years in terms of trustworthiness. Makes sense, but at the same time I can’t forget examples from the past (the tobacco industry may be the best to note here), where credibility was gained through scientific reports heavily controlled by the industry that had a vested interest. It is well proven now that respectable scientists were funded by the tobacco industry to do research that would take any negatives outcomes of the product on health away. And if the research would show otherwise, reports were adapted such that they showed the results the industry wanted. Currently similar accusations are made against the mobile phone industry; intense mobile phone use close to ear and head may be linked to brain cancer. With such practices still evident, can we even trust those sources that stare us in the face??


    • broganmicallef on

      Thank you for your comment Anke.

      Yes, I am referring to the institutions that those in the study rated as the most trustworthy. That included the medical profession, as well as scientists, radio and consumer organisations.

      I agree that in some instances, those labelled as ‘trusted’ sources may have let us down (or even continue to let us down) with regards to certain information. Despite this, it appears that people still place a great amount of trust in these institutions (as shown in the study). Maybe because they have been proven right more than they have been wrong (and hence still have credibility), people are willing to overlook the few mistakes?

      I don’t mean to condone what these organisations have supported (such as the examples you provided), but I still feel that the medical profession, scientists, radio and consumer organisations are our best bet for successfully communicating food related risks to the public. They may not be perfect, but then again, who is?

  2. Carmen Pol on

    Hi Brogan. Your blog was very clear and thought provoking. I especially enjoyed the goldilocks analogy you employed, it painted a very clear picture of how sources can become trusted – by balancing accountability and knowledge, etc. I personally wonder how particular sources become trusted in the first place. Why is Steggles trustworthy but KFC not so? To me, I guess KFC has a ‘bad’ stigma attached to it due to the understanding that it is unhealthy, and I have not personally had any problems with Steggles chicken (apart from my lack of cooking ability 😉 ). I do agree with Anke’s point in that, certain institutions that are ‘trusted’ may not always be deserving of such a trustworthy status. I guess every situation is different and that needs to be taken into account in such instances and discretion is required.

    • broganmicallef on

      Thank you Carmen.

      I think the difference between the trust placed in Steggles and KFC (for example) has occurred as you mention. The ‘unhealthy’ stigma appears to be a very difficult one to lose (and looking at KFC it is easy to understand why!).

      As I mentioned in my response to Anke, although ‘trusted’ organisations are not entirely without fault, they are by far the best option we have. I also don’t think there is any one organisation that has been 100% truthful, 100% correct, 100% of the time, nor should we expect any institution to be! Although that is a noble goal to aim for, with the advancement in knowledge that is occurring in the field of science, as well as what is considered to be healthy and what is not (i.e. what is risky and what is not), I really don’t think it is likely to be obtained. What we believe to be ‘un-risky’ today may actually turn out to be risky in the future, and those communicating that lack of risk (or whatever the case may be), will not always be at fault.

  3. Christine on

    Hi Brogan,

    As I was reading your blog post, I was reminded of the issues surrounding McDonald’s. Even though they say that their food have better nutritional value than before and offers of “healthier” options for their health-conscious consumers, the media is constantly reporting the overwhelming amount of preservatives and lack of “real food” in their products.

    So while we can look and scrutinise individual organisations for their level of trustworthiness and credibility, I think the media is actually a good go-to for the general public to obtain information about organisations because the media isn’t clouded by a fiscal or particular agenda except to report a story that they’ve found.

    Certainly they can and very often sensationalise daily news but in this respect, it’s actually a good source of information for the general public who can then make an informed decision about food-related risks.

    The media can be considered to be an “independent” source of information in this respect but then again, that is another debate for another day 😉

    • broganmicallef on

      Hi Christine.

      Thanks for your comment.

      While I agree that the media is often the source that the public turns too, I’m not sure if it is really trusted. I know that when I hear media reports, I often take it with a grain of salt (though that can be hard – the media knows how to tell a good story!).

      If the information is sensationalised, as you mention, can it really be interpreted as a good means of communicating risk to the public? I also think that the media does have a ‘particular agenda’ – they are in the ratings business and I think this can often cloud their effectiveness as a risk communicator.

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