1.2 Consumer food risk perceptions

The concept of consumer risk perception is important in order to understand and explain consumers’ food choices.

Consumer perceptions of risks associated with specific foods or food-related hazards have been extensively investigated (see, among others, the different articles of Frewer et al. and Rosati and Saba, 2004), as well as the consequences of perceived risk for consumption intentions (see, among others, Pennings et al., 2002; Verbeke and Viaene, 1999; Verbeke, 2001). In addition, it has been recognised that consumers’ ethical concerns or other core values such as preferences for specific production methods may interact with risk perceptions in terms of influencing consumer food choices (Dreezens et al., 2005).

Slovic and colleagues (see, for example Slovic, 1987, 1992; Slovic et al., 1982)  demonstrate that consumer risk psychology is of direct relevance to understanding best risk management and risk communication practices.

Consumers are not only led by technical considerations in their assessment of the impact of potential hazards. They are also influenced by psychological factors such as whether they perceive that they are involuntarily exposed to a hazard, and the extent to which they believe a particular hazard is potentially catastrophic and uncontrollable.

In other words, the psychology of risk perception drives public risk attitudes:

  • An involuntary risk over which people have no control is more threatening than one people choose to take
  • Potentially catastrophic risks concern people the most
  • Unnatural (technological) risks are more threatening than natural ones

Cultural and personal elements

Risks are not the same for everyone. Differences in perceptions of risk and benefit associated with various food hazards exist between:

  • Different cultures
  • Individuals (e.g. women versus men)
  • Contexts (e.g. parents versus non-parents)
Consumer food risk perceptions

The way in which people assess perceptions of food risks:

Consumer food risk perceptions

Optimistic bias in risk perception

People often believe that they are at low personal risk from hazards, a phenomenon known as “optimistic bias” or unreal optimism (Miles and Scaife, 2003). Food safety hazards and in particular lifestyle risks tend towards optimistic bias (it won’t happen to me). This optimistic bias can be a serious obstacle for effective risk communication (Weinstein and Klein, 1995).

In the case of optimistic bias, people:

  • Report higher (perceived) control countering risks than society or others
  • Report that they have more knowledge about risks than society or others

Frewer, Shepherd & Sparks (1994) have studied consumers’ determinants of risk perceptions, and found it to be especially prevalent for lifestyle risks (see figure below).

Consumer food risk perceptions