Consumer Reaction to a Risk/benefit/option Message about Agricultural Chemicals in the Food Supply

By Chipman, Helen; Kendall, Patricia et al. | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Consumer Reaction to a Risk/benefit/option Message about Agricultural Chemicals in the Food Supply


Chipman, Helen, Kendall, Patricia, Auld, Garry, Slater, Michael, Keefe, Thomas, The Journal of Consumer Affairs


Food safety issues, particularly those related to the use of pesticides, have become a major public health concern in recent years. Controversies, marked by heated debates, have challenged public trust. Efforts by government regulatory agencies and industry to reassure the public that the U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world have failed to alleviate public concern (Scherer 1991).

Pesticide use and food safety issues are complex and difficult to communicate without polarizing the public and precipitating emotional barriers to rational decisionmaking. Still, the need for involving consumers in issues of this type has been acknowledged for some time. As early as 1978, Fischhoff, Slovic, and Lichtenstein reported that reduction of risks implies a reduction of benefits, which leads consumers to ask "how safe is safe enough?" People are willing to tolerate higher risks associated with beneficial activities. More recently, the National Research Council's Committee on Risk Perception and Communication (NRC 1989) noted that people generally prefer to have risks and options explained and choices given, particularly when control of the risk requires action from them. Communication and media researchers (Gardner and Gould 1989; Kasperson et al. 1988; Nelkin 1989), along with industry representatives (McKinney 1990), have emphasized the importance of giving the public a balanced message about risks, for example, sharing benefits and options along with risks.

The goal of risk communication, as identified by Sandman, is to create "rational alertness," for example, to "alert people when they ought to be alerted and reassure them when they ought to be reassured" (Sandman 1986, 1). Rational and responsible decision-making requires knowledgeable identification and assessment of associated risks and benefits, along with acceptance of personal responsibility for the outcome of such decisions by scientists, government regulators, producers, and consumers alike.

Public awareness programs are needed to (1) improve the public's understanding of food safety issues; (2) increase awareness among producers, processors, grocers, and consumers of their shared responsibility in promoting and maintaining the safety and quality of the food supply; and (3) provide people with the tools they need to make informed decisions. Little, however, is known about public communication strategies that build trust and promote rational alertness on the part of the receiver. Can consumers accept and rationally respond to public awareness risk/benefit/option messages regarding the use of agricultural chemicals in food production?

In this project, insights gained through preliminary focus group discussions with producers and consumers regarding attitudes about pesticides and food safety were used in developing a public awareness message with the theme "Here are the risks, benefits and options; you share in the decision-making power." Four formats were created for delivering the message: two-minute video news release, one-minute public service announcement, 450-word print news release, and 450-word newspaper column (copies available from authors). Reactions to the overall message and four delivery formats were then evaluated by eight groups of consumers using quantitative and qualitative methods. Full details of the project are given elsewhere (Chipman 1992; Kendall et al. 1991).

This paper focuses on the attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge of consumers and their reactions to the risk/benefit/option message, both individually and in focus group discussions. These responses offer some insight into making risk communication messages more effective in creating a rational environment for consideration of controversial issues.

METHODS

Message Development

Between October and December, 1989, five pre-message focus groups, consisting of eight to 12 participants each, were conducted in northern Colorado. Three were held with consumers (urban, suburban, and rural) and two with farmers (one with organic producers and one with conventional producers). …

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