BSE eroded faith in MPs

July 24, 1998

Homophobia and mad cows: Alison Goddard reports from the British Psychological Society conference

People who are concerned about the genetic modification of food are less likely to trust the government for information after its handling of the BSE crisis.

This was the finding presented to the conference by Neil Coulson of the University of Plymouth.

People who lack knowledge about a subject have to put their trust in a source of information. Mr Coulson assessed what makes such a source trustworthy by surveying the opinions of students.

He found that it was important for the source to be seen as knowledgeable and responsible, with no vested interests. But the most crucial element was that it had been proven right in the past.

He said: "The government was seen as making errors (over the BSE crisis). For almost ten years, the British government had been insistent that there was no link between BSE and its human equivalent, and that beef was safe. Any further comment that it makes might therefore be treated with scepticism. It will take some time for the government to restore the public's level of trust."

The government should review the ways in which it communicates with people, Mr Coulson added.

"People have woken up to the good and the bad things that come out of food science, and we are going to see more concern over the genetic modification of food," he said.

As part of the study, Mr Coulson also asked the students whether they felt that they were at risk of developing the human equivalent of mad-cow disease. Although they thought other people were at risk, most said that they felt no risk to themselves.

The students used various reasoning strategies to make this assessment. Some pointed to the salmonella scare, which has disappeared from public view. The BSE crisis would probably be another storm in a teacup, they said.

Others compared the risk of infection to that of taking drugs or being in a car crash. They concluded that eating beef was less dangerous than either of these.

Attitudes are also known to change over time, said Mr Coulson, who made his study about two years after the government finally accepted the connection between BSE and its human equivalent.

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