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Important topics of consumer health protection still widely unknown

14/2017, 18.04.2017

BfR publishes fourth Consumer Monitor on the perception of health risks

If you ask consumers what the greatest health risks are in their view, these are still likely to be smoking, climate and environmental pollution, unhealthy or wrong diet, and alcohol. Only after these are unhealthy or contaminated foods mentioned, along with possible problems that can be caused by agriculture. This is a result of the fourth BfR Consumer Monitor, a representative survey conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). Although a small majority of respondents are of the opinion that the quality and safety of our food tend to increase or stay the same, topics such as antibiotic resistance, genetically modified foods and pesticide residues are still a cause for concern among the general public. "It can still be seen that consumers also underestimate risks which are important from the point of view of risk assessment, such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids in tea, acrylamide in foods and food hygiene in the home," says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. Most people in Germany do not know about a new method of genetic engineering which is currently the subject of intensive scientific discussion, so-called "genome editing".

As a representative survey of over 1,000 persons, the BfR Consumer Monitor provides answers at 6-month intervals to the question of how the population perceives topics from the field of consumer health protection.

Just as they did last year, consumers still regard smoking as the greatest health risk, followed by climate and environmental pollution, an unhealthy diet and alcohol. Unhealthy or contaminated food is only mentioned as a risk in this open question by nearly one person in ten and the same applies to problems which can arise through agriculture. In a prompted question, just over half of respondents also stated that they believe the quality and safety of foods tend to increase or stay the same.

Consumers continue to show concern about antibiotic resistance and the assumed risks of genetically modified foods, as well as residues of plant protection products in food. Together with the topic of food fraud/falsification, these are also the topics that head the awareness scale in a prompted question. There are still big differences where levels of awareness of health and consumer topics are concerned. Whereas the topic of glyphosate in food has picked up significantly over last year’s survey to the extent that the majority of respondents are now aware of it, presumably due to the wide media coverage, only a good third of respondents have heard about pyrrolizidine alkaloids in herbal teas and teas. Likewise, only a very small proportion of respondents are concerned about this topic, even though its health-damaging potential is scientifically undisputed. Another relatively unknown topic, which comes last in the awareness scale but which is currently being discussed by scientists, is the new method of "genome editing" used for the targeted alteration of genetic make-up.

One topic to which consumers pay nowhere near enough attention from a scientific point of view is food hygiene in the home. As in previous years, only a small minority are concerned about it according to this prompted question. Contrary to this though, 34% worry about food hygiene in the gastronomy sector.

The respondents view the safety of products such as textiles, toys and cosmetics with scepticism. Accordingly, almost half of them regard textiles and toys as unsafe, with the percentage dropping a little for cosmetics. Concern about the safety of toys has increased since last year.

Although trust in the state to protect consumer health is slightly lower than it was last year, it is still present among the majority of the population. Where general attitudes towards consumer health protection are concerned, a small majority still want to see more measures taken by the state to protect against health risks. For a good third, the provision of scientifically validated information would be sufficient for them to reach a decision by themselves. Only one in ten respondents believes that health risks can be estimated without the help of a state institution.

The results of the latest Consumer Monitor show just how important it is to shift findings and verifiable results from research more into the awareness of the general public. With this goal in mind, scientists are again calling for participation in the March for Science which is taking place all over the world on 22 April 2017. Rallies are being held in 14 German cities, including Berlin, to demonstrate in favour of scientifically sound facts and against post-factual attitudes as the basis of discussion in public debates.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

The BfR is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, the institute has published a jubilee brochure which can be downloaded or ordered free of charge at http://www.bfr.bund.de/de/publikation/broschueren-660.html.

March for Science on 22 April 2017 in Berlin: http://marchforscienceberlin.de/

Disclaimer

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.

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