Lack of knowledge about food is risky

Food and the safety of our food are of the utmost importance to people, or so we thought. In recent research undertaken by my summer student, it appears that most Canadians aren’t all that worried about the safety of the food products they purchase.

Two-thirds of Canadian consumers surveyed trust that the regulatory system in place to ensure food safety is doing as intended. Only 18 percent of those surveyed don’t trust that the government’s food inspection system ensures food safety.

While it is impressive to see such a strong trust in food safety, there is some level of concern over the understanding of our food safety systems.

Nearly half of those surveyed, 45 percent, felt that they did not possess a good understanding of how risks and therefore food safety are managed. While 65 percent trust our food system, only 20 percent expressed that they have a good understanding of the system we have in place. Without a good understanding of the risk management system, there is always a chance that Canadians may reject some new food or food product that is safe for consumption.

A lack of understanding of the risk management system could lead to consumers rejecting the product. This is risky both for the developers of new crops and food products who invest hundreds of millions annually.

We might not understand the system of food safety, but we certainly trust it. Seventy percent of those surveyed agreed food safety hazards in Canada are taken seriously, and only 11 percent of respondents disagree.

Such strong agreement may partially be due to the public actions the Canadian Food Inspection Agency takes by publicly posting all food product recalls. In some instances of significant national importance, public safety notices are issued, such as with the safety issues with romaine lettuce in late 2018. These public safety notices are communicated through most media sources — print, radio and TV — helping to ensure that all Canadians remain safe.

As previously stated, one-fifth of Canadians indicate they have a good understanding of how risks are managed in the food safety system. The other side of this is that nearly half indicated they don’t have a good understanding, and one-third did not have an opinion.

With more than twice as many Canadians disagreeing with the statement than agreeing, it’s clear the messages of safety and risk management are not effectively reaching Canadians. This is in spite of the significant resources spent communicating food safety to Canadians.

Perhaps what is needed is to determine what information is personally needed about our food and its safety, who we want the information from, and how we want to receive it. Industry, government and researchers are always wanting to help inform consumers, but more effort may be needed to communicate with Canadians through the means of their choice.

Stuart Smyth is with the University of Saskatchewan’s agricultural and resource economics department. This article first appeared on the SAI Food website.

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