Despite the growing importance of health-related issues in the food industry, most Europeans still associate food and eating first and foremost with taste and pleasure and not with well-being, according to a report out today (8 February).

In fact when consumers were asked what comes to mind in thinking about food only one out of five mentioned health; furthermore, concerns regarding possible risks or disease were hardly mentioned at all spontaneously, the report said. 

The research was conducted by Eurobarometer and jointly commissioned by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General (DG SANCO).

A release today on the findings said that when consumers are asked, more specifically, to cite any possible problems or risks associated with food, no single issue emerges for the majority of respondents.

Major food crises of the past such as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) do not seem to be top-of-mind today. In fact, few respondents (less than one out of five) identified food safety issues spontaneously: amongst these, food poisoning came to mind most often, followed by chemicals, pesticides and toxic substances and obesity.

When consumers were further confronted with a list of possible risks associated with food, concerns appeared to be more widespread. Consumers tended to worry most about risks caused by external factors over which they have little or no control. The report found at the top end of the “worry” scale (over 60% of respondents) were concerns regarding: pesticide residues, new viruses (such as avian influenza), residues in meats, food hygiene (outside the home) and contamination of food by bacteria.

Consumers appeared to be less worried about risks possibly associated with their own behaviour or practices.

“It is interesting to note that whilst obesity is mentioned spontaneously as a possible risk associated with food (albeit by few consumers), few appear to be worried about putting on weight themselves (the latter is ranked amongst the lowest items in the “worry” scale),” Eurobarometer said.

Meanwhile, public opinion appeared divided on whether food safety had improved over the last ten years. Some 38% of respondents stated that the situation has improved; 29% that it has stayed the same; and 28% that we are now worse off than before.

The extent to which people are concerned about food safety appeared to be related to the way in which they react to media coverage of food-related issues. Although only 13% of the people surveyed recall media coverage on food-related health risks compared to smoking, obesity and alcohol, one out of two respondents indicate that they have changed their eating habits as a result. However, over 40% of people either ignore stories they hear in the media about a type of food being unsafe or bad for health or worry and do nothing.