Commissioner David Byrne: "Irrational Fears or Legitimate Concerns" - Risk Perception in Perspective, Risk Perception: Science, Public Debate and Policy Making Conference Brussels, 4 December 2003

December 5, 2003

Brussels, 4 December 2003


I am delighted to welcome you all to this conference on risk perception, science, public debate and policy making.

We have assembled an impressive line up of speakers encompassing political, academic and other expertise. I am particularly pleased that Renate Künast and Miguel Cañete are here today to give us their national perspectives on issues related to risk perception.

The subject of food safety has risen markedly in the public consciousness over recent years triggered by a spate of food crises and food scares. Public concern over the safety of the food is at an all time high.

Take antibiotic and other residues for example. Public pressure calls for ever lower levels of residues which might pose a risk to public health. People are right, of course, to take this issue seriously.

But how many of us at the same time fail to treat basic hygiene issues with the same seriousness? Leaving shopping in the boot of a car in the hot sun. Eating food after its "use by" date has expired. Incorrect storage. Not washing hands before handling food. The list goes on.

In fact, salmonella poisoning alone leads, at a conservative estimate, to 200 deaths each year across the EU and some 160 000 cases of illness.

Something seems wrong here. Something doesn't quite add up. Our response to risk often appears to be inconsistent if not completely irrational. We may shun low risk situations whilst embracing those with higher risk. Why should this be so?

Are we dealing with irrational fears or legitimate concerns?

Why this conference?

The subject of risk is beginning to come of age. Scientists are being asked to quantify risk as opposed merely to identifying hazards. There has been a growing recognition over the past 15 years of the importance of proper risk analysis and increasing interest in how this can be best used in relation to governance.

This conference aims to pull some of the strands together. I hope it will help to foster a greater understanding of the factors bearing on risk perception, something I believe is instrumental in improving governance.

Of the various components of risk assessment, management, analysis, communication and perception, the perception of risk is perhaps the most difficult to understand and evaluate.

Five factors bearing on risk perception

I will first focus on five broad factors that I believe influence society's relationship and reaction to matters of risk.

    1. Governance
First the relationship between Governments and public institutions and broader society. This touches on the important issue of public trust. The issue of mistrust in public institutions is one which we need to take very seriously.

It is no accident that the influences bearing on European democracies have shown a marked shift in recent years with the rise of the stakeholder society. At a time when interest and involvement in politics at citizen level appears to be receding across many EU countries, strenuous and significant efforts have been and are continuing to be made to engage citizens in the processes and decisions which ultimately affect them.

Also important is the question of leadership at European level. It is essential that citizens recognise that someone is in charge, there is a plan, and the plan is seen to be working in their interest. All the more so in the context of restoring or reinforcing public confidence.

    2. Science
Second the role and influence of science in shaping public attitudes to risk. A key feature of my approach to policy formation is that it should be underpinned by reliable science. But the scientific community is often viewed as being remote from people. In the pursuit of scientific progress it is vital that the link between science and society is strengthened.

If science is perceived to exist in a bubble, isolated from society, serving its own academic and financial interests rather than engaging with society, or speaking a language incomprehensible to the general public, mistrust and suspicion will inevitably follow.

    3. Society
Third the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations. Clearly NGOs have an important role to play in the political process but in some cases their influence can be, or can be perceived to be, disproportionate, not to mention downright opportunistic. Why is it for example that some NGOs and pressure groups seem to attract more public trust than governments despite the fact that governments are elected by citizens, and ultimately, accountable for the result of their actions?
    4. Culture
Fourth - cultural factors clearly have an influence on the perception of risk. It will be interesting to hear the presentation of Anne Sergeant this afternoon on cultural models in risk perception.

In relation to the GM debate it could be illuminating to explore the cultural differences which appear to exist between European and US citizens. Are US citizens more trusting of their government structures and more confident that those institutions represent and protect their interests? Or are they perhaps less able than their European counterparts to influence government decisions? Why is it that US citizens seem more favourably disposed towards multi-national companies than Europeans? Or is there a difference the way information is transmitted and reported which influences how it is perceived by the public?

    5. Public Media
Fifth - the role of the media. Allow me to take this year's SARS episode as a case in point.

The SARS situation was a classic case of the sudden and dramatic arrival of a risk of unknown quantity. But most of the information that the public received about SARS came, of course, via the media. SARS was a big story. Misery reporting or dread news attracts audience interest and enhances the marketability of news. "Killer bug threatens millions" is an arresting headline which can trigger public alarm and even panic in a manner which might be quite disproportionate to the actual risk in question.

Interestingly the subject of SARS dropped out of the media spotlight almost as quickly as it emerged. "No further deaths from SARS" is not a story. This illustrates a kind of "out of sight, out of mind" approach.

Thus, the issue for public authorities becomes one of how to transmit clear and accurate risk messages against the backdrop of some sections of the media apparently intent on maximising hysteria and building up and maintaining the story.

I mention this because it represents a great opportunity and a significant challenge in getting risk messages across to the public. In a free society we cannot control what the media chooses to report, nor should we seek to. All the more reason for ensuring that messages are clear, coherent and consistent, not to mention timely and relevant.

My own experiences: BSE and SARS

Staying with risk communication I would reflect briefly on two contrasting episodes BSE and SARS.

One of the aftershock effects of the UK government's announcement of a possible link between BSE and new variant CJD in 1996 was a fragmentation of messages right across Europe which led to chaos, confusion and a meltdown in public confidence which went far beyond the question of beef from just one Member State.

The beef market collapsed. People felt they had been misled.

When stringent measures were introduced to close off the possibility of infected meat entering the food chain public confidence in beef gradually began to return. And when the UK government placed a ban on "beef on the bone" in response to what was regarded then as a potentially small risk, many UK citizens felt this was a step too far. There was even frantic buying of remaining beef stocks before the ban came into effect. However this belt and braces approach, perceived by many to be overly cautious, probably contributed to the rehabilitation of beef in the eyes of, at least, UK consumers.

Four years after the UK announcement, a similar crisis re-emerged in Germany. When BSE was finally discovered there, public confidence plummeted.

And in France a second BSE crisis arose in late 2000 when French citizens realised the extent of BSE. History was re-writing itself in terms of the "communications gap".

Contrast this with the SARS outbreak earlier this year. Despite the media hyperbole to which I have referred, the risk message was largely successfully conveyed to the public with the World Health Organisation (and the Commission in its own right) playing a vital role by becoming the principal information focus, providing calm, clear, authoritative advice and direction, and reconciling sometimes divergent views.

The clear lesson is that a transparent and consistent approach to risk communication is vital in gaining and maintaining public confidence and trust.

Trust and transparency

Indeed trust and transparency constitute two essential elements of effective risk analysis.

The establishment of food safety agencies in many Member States in recent years have created a credible and visible independence from governmental structures with the broad aim of increasing transparency and thus bolstering public acceptance and confidence.

And of course at European level, we now have established the European Food Safety Authority on which Geoffrey Podger will be addressing this conference later today

European Food Safety Authority

One of the key features of EFSA is its independence its capacity to inform and advise, free from political interference or industry influence. I sincerely hope it will prove to be a major breakthrough in improving the relationship between public institutions and European citizens. But EFSA is still in its infancy. It remains to be seen to what extent EFSA will become embraced and trusted by European citizens. Trust needs to be earned. I hope it will be. EFSA needs to prove its worth over time and to build a sound and solid reputation, as the FDA has achieved in the United States, albeit in an entirely different constitutional and societal context.

Risk perception from the point of view of individuals

Without wishing to steal the thunder of the some of the other speakers, I will briefly mention just a few of the recurring observations that research into the risk perception by individuals has brought to light in recent years.

We do not habitually seek out the safest route the path of least resistance as we go about our daily lives. I sometimes wonder if we Europeans were to revert to the Precautionary Principle as often as some believe we do, would we ever go to our place of employment in the morning.

Some risks we regard as inevitable, part and parcel of everyday life (such as crossing the road). Some risks we actively choose for the value they add to life (such as skiing or participating in contact sports).

There is a risk attached to almost everything we do. Even inactivity carries risk. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice recognises that there is no such thing as zero risk.

Let us examine a few contrasting situations:

  • Control. Risks that are taken by an individual that are under their personal control (such as driving a car) appear to be more readily acceptable than those which are outside their control (such as pesticide residues in foods).

  • Linked to this is the question of who decides on the risk. Individuals seem more comfortable with risks they decide to take on their own rather than risks which are decided on their behalf by Governments, for example.

  • Catastrophic potential. Citizens tend to be more concerned about accidents for which, despite being relatively rare, the chances of survival are slim (such as plane crashes), while more common and random events such as car accidents, which cause more deaths are apparently of less concern.
Another example here is the risk perception attached to the vaccination of children against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). In the UK, concerns about a possible individual catastrophic reaction to the vaccine led to a serious decline in uptake which in turn has led to fears from UK health authorities that a measles epidemic may take hold this winter with a much higher potential of risk.
  • Benefit. What's in it for me? Why should I be asked to take a risk, however small, if I cannot see any tangible benefit from doing so? This strikes an obvious chord with the GM debate in relation to food, a subject on which a considerable amount of emphasis will be placed during the course of this conference, through the stakeholder forum I have initiated.
Despite repeated scientific assurance about the safety of consuming genetically modified food products, public attitudes towards GM foods show few if any signs of a thaw. The science-based message simply fails to get across. Citizens seem, by and large, to have made up their minds. Further attempts at public persuasion might even prove to be counter-productive if citizens feel they are being leant on or otherwise coerced into changing their views. Let us see what the outcome of the new GM labelling regime will be.
    The general rule would appear to be "no perceived benefit, no acceptance." The word "perceived" is crucial here as opposed to "real". Contrast this with a situation where the risks are relatively high but the promise of a benefit is also high. Take for example newly developed drugs to counter major diseases which may have serious side effects. Here the resistance to risk can be markedly reduced or even reversed to be positively embraced despite the apparent dangers. In this case no irrational fears, no legitimate concerns, but clear benefits.
Facing up to the issues

This conference gives us an ideal opportunity to get to grips with certain key questions. If we fail to make progress, there is a very real danger that an "anti-science" agenda may take root in European society leading to a society hampered and restricted by a collective neurosis; lacking in self confidence; resistant to innovation and unwilling to embrace change.

We must not be deluded by the sometimes seductive yet false notion of a zero risk society.

Key questions

So in the course of today and tomorrow I would ask you to focus on how we can improve our understanding of risk and how we can channel this understanding into positive improvements in governance. What can we learn from each other? How can we improve our interpretation of the world around us and respond accordingly? How can we improve public understanding of risk and further improve trust? And how can we ensure better communication, understanding and engagement of stakeholders?

For this conference should be more than just a talking shop. I very much hope that some of the ideas that will emerge can be followed up in practical ways to improve and enhance our approach to all matters related to risk.

Thank you.

DN: SPEECH/03/593  Date: 04/12/2003

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