Do I have to be a scientist to assess food safety?

I saw this BBC item on the web before Christmas: Why are we more scared of raw egg than reheated rice? Just after Christmas seemed like a good time to blog about food safety. Actually, the link I followed asked Are some foods more dangerous that others? A question that has a really easy answer.

However, understanding the characteristic risks of various foods and how most safely to prepare them is less simple. Risk theorist John Adams draws a distinction between readily identified inherent and obvious risks, and risks that can only be perceived with the help of science. Food risks fall into the latter category. As far as I can see, “folk wisdom” is no reliable guide here, even partially. The BBC article refers to risks from rice, pasta and salad vegetables which are not obvious. At the same time, in the UK at least, the risk from raw eggs is very small.

Ironically, raw eggs are one food that springs readily to British people’s minds when food risk is raised, largely due to the folk memory of a high profile but ill thought out declaration by a government minister in the 1980s. This is an example of what Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called an availability heuristic: If you can think of it, it must be important.

Food safety is an environment where an individual is best advised to follow the advice of scientists. We commonly receive this filtered, even if only for accessibility, through government agencies. That takes us back to the issue of trust in bureaucracy on which I have blogged before.

I wonder whether governments are in the best position to provide such advice. It is food suppliers who suffer from the public’s misallocated fears. The egg fiasco of the 1980s had a catastrophic effect on UK egg sales. All food suppliers have an interest in a market characterised by a perception that the products are safe. The food industry is also likely to be in the best position to know what is best practice, to improve such practice, to know how to communicate it to their customers, to tailor it to their products and to provide the effective behavioural “nudges” that promote safe handling. Consumers are likely to be cynical about governments, “one size fits all” advice and cycles of academic meta-analysis.

I think there are also lessons here for organisations. Some risks are assessed on the basis of scientific analysis. It is important that the prestige of that origin is communicated to all staff who will be involved in working with risk. The danger for any organisation is that an individual employee might make a reassessment based on local data and their own self-serving emotional response. As I have blogged before, some individuals have particular difficulty in aligning themselves with the wider organisation.

Of course, individuals must also be equipped with the means of detecting when the assumptions behind the science have been violated and initiating an agile escalation so that employee, customer and organisation can be protected while a reassessment is conducted. Social media provide new ways of sharing experience. I note from the BBC article that, in the UK at least, there is no real data on the origins of food poisoning outbreaks.

So the short answer to the question at the head of this blog still turns out to be “yes”. There are some things where we simply have to rely on science if we want to look after ourselves, our families and our employees.

But even scientists are limited by their own bounded rationality. Science is a work in progress. Using that science itself as a background against which to look for novel phenomena and neglected residual effects leverages that original risk analysis into a key tool in managing, improving and growing a business.

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