The text below, authored by Professor Paula Teixeira, was published by the newspaper Público on June 14, 2018
It is believed that most foodborne diseases could be avoided if they were handled safely “from farm to fork”.
Food is a fundamental need of man. Consumers expect the food they buy and consume to be appetizing, nutritious and at the same time safe. This latter aspect means that food consumed can not endanger the health of the consumer. But, as the old Chinese proverb says, "who does not have food, has a problem, who has food, has several problems." In fact, foodborne illness (diseases caused by ingestion of food contaminated by pathogenic micro-organisms) is a serious problem. According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), 23,000 people fall ill and 5,000 die annually in Europe following the ingestion of contaminated food.
Consumers are now more aware of food safety issues than ever before, but interestingly, a large proportion of food poisonings are associated with food preparation and consumption in our homes. Exposure of food to inadequate heating or cooling temperatures and some incorrect hygiene practices are the most commonly identified food safety breaches. It is therefore believed that most foodborne diseases could be avoided if they were handled safely “from farm to fork" - and the consumer can play a decisive role at this level!
Risk communication, one of the steps that make up the basic risk analysis of food safety policy, aims to "provide consumers and the general public with the information they need to make a conscious and sustained choice." A number of initiatives have been undertaken worldwide to reduce the impact of foodborne illness, including informing consumers of home-based food safety practices. But are these risk communication strategies effective? Are the most significant risks and the best ways of controlling them communicated? Will risk communication campaigns reach target populations? Are the most effective channels of communication being used? Will consumers understand the messages? Will consumers rely on sources of information? Are the barriers to effective communication with each target group identified? Will the practices and behaviors of food safety be greatly improved?
The truth is that - for example - although several campaigns advise consumers not to wash the chicken to avoid the spread of Campylobacter, this practice is still a routine in people's kitchens. At the same time, although several websites and other sources of information point to the risk of contraction of listeriosis in pregnant women and their consequences, many women continue to consume high-risk foods during pregnancy. Also noteworthy is the case of children's snacks, which often include perishable foods - such as ham, for example - stored at room temperature for long periods of time. It is necessary to clarify: how many domestic refrigerators operate at the recommended temperature? How many consumers know what this temperature is? And how many check it out?
It is up to the scientific community, authorities and the market to find the best strategies to help consumers mitigate food risks. Rather than increasing knowledge and risk perception, it will be necessary to influence people's risk behavior. This is the purpose of the multidisciplinary team of the SafeConsume project - Safer food through changed consumer behavior: Effective tools and products, communication strategies, education and food safety policy reducing health burden from foodborne illnesses.