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.


The cyclist on the railway crossing – a total failure of risk perception

This is a shocking video. It shows a cyclist wholly disregarding warnings and safety barriers at a railway crossing in the UK. She evaded death, and the possible derailment of the train, by the thinnest of margins imaginable.

In my mind this raises fundamental questions, not only about risk perception, but also about how we can expect individuals to behave in systems not of their own designing. Such systems, of course, include organisations.

I was always intrigued by John Adams’ anthropological taxonomy of attitudes to risk (taken from his 1995 book Risk).


Adams identifies four attitudes to risk found at large. Each is entirely self-consistent within its own terms. The egalitarian believes that human and natural systems inhabit a precarious equilibrium. Any departure from the sensitive balance will propel the system towards catastrophe. However, the individualist believes the converse, that systems are in general self-correcting. Any disturbance away from repose will be self-limiting and the system will adjust itself back to equilibrium. The hierarchist agrees with the individualist up to a point but only so long as any disturbance remains within scientifically drawn limits. Outside that lies catastrophe. The fatalist believes that outcomes are inherently uncontrollable and indifferent to individual ambition. Worrying about outcomes is not the right criterion for deciding behaviour.

Without an opportunity to interview the cyclist it is difficult to analyse what she was up to. Even then, I think that it would be difficult for her recollection to escape distortion by some post hoc and post-traumatic rationalisation. I think Adams provides some key insights but there is a whole ecology of thoughts that might be interacting here.

Was the cyclist a fatalist resigned to the belief that no matter how she behaved on the road injury, should it come, would be capricious and arbitrary? Time and chance happeneth to them all.

Was she an individualist confident that the crossing had been designed with her safety assured and that no mindfulness on her part was essential to its effectiveness? That would be consistent with Adams’ theory of risk homeostasis. Whenever a process is made safer on our behalf, we have a tendency to increase our own risk-taking so that the overall risk is the same as before. Adams cites the example of seatbelts in motor cars leading to more aggressive driving.

Did the cyclist perceive any risk at all? Wagenaar and Groeneweg (International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 1987 27 587) reviewed something like 100 shipping accidents and came to the conclusion that:

Accidents do not occur because people gamble and lose, they occur because people do not believe that the accident that is about to occur is at all possible.

Why did the cyclist not trust that the bells, flashing lights and barriers had been provided for her own safety by people who had thought about this a lot? The key word here is “trust” and I have blogged about that elsewhere. I feel that there is an emerging theme of trust in bureaucracy. Engineers are not used to mistrust, other than from accountants. I fear that we sometimes assume too easily that anti-establishment instincts are constrained by the instinct for self preservation.

However we analyse it, the cyclist suffered from a near fatal failure of imagination. Imagination is central to risk management, the richer the spectrum of futures anticipated, the more effectively risk management can be designed into a business system. To the extent that our imagination is limited, we are hostage to our agility in responding to signals in the data. That is what the cyclist discovered when she belatedly spotted the train.

Economist G L S Shackle made this point repeatedly, especially in his last book Imagination and the Nature of Choice (1979). Risk management is about getting better at imagining future scenarios but still being able to spot when an unanticipated scenario has emerged, and being excellent at responding efficiently and timeously. That is the big picture of risk identification and risk awareness.

That then leads to the question of how we manage the risks we can see. A fundamental question for any organisation is what sort of risk takers inhabit their ranks? Risk taking is integral to pursuing an enterprise. Each organisation has its own risk profile. It is critical that individual decision makers are aligned to that. Some will have an instinctive affinity for the corporate philosophy. Others can be aligned through regulation, training and leadership. Some others will not respond to guidance. It is the latter category who must only be placed in positions where the organisation knows that it can benefit from their personal risk appetite.

If you think this an isolated incident and that the cyclist doesn’t work for you, you can see more railway crossing incidents here.