Food Safety and the Concept of Risk:
Written by Office of Agricultural Affairs, U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, Suguru Sato and Rachel Nelson
Everyone knows that Japanese consumers are very concerned about food safety. Some consumers even go so far as to demand that food in Japan must be 100% safe. However, as in every country, there are inevitably numerous cases of food poisoning in Japan. Some of these incidents are a result of consumers choosing to eat certain high-risk foods such as raw eggs, wild mushrooms, or puffer fish. This illustrates that even Japanese consumers sometimes choose to accept a certain amount of risk in their food, even though they may not realize that is what they are doing. In this article, the important concepts of risk and risk management will be discussed as well as some misconceptions about food safety.
I. What is Risk?
When discussing food safety, one must understand the concept of risk. There are many definitions of risk, and the specific meaning depends on the application and situational contexts. Most generally, risk is an indicator of the expected loss or damage that could occur in a given situation related to the likelihood of this event occurring. Therefore risk should be seen as having two factors:
1. the magnitude (severity) of the possible adverse consequence(s), and
2. the likelihood (probability) of occurrence of each consequence.
In Japanese there is no exact translation for the word “risk.” The word risk in Japanese is often translated as Kiken, which means hazard or danger, but that only covers part of the meaning. More accurately, the word really represents the level of severity and probability of potential negative incidents.
These two factors - the degree of harm that could be done (for example unpleasant feeling versus death) and the likelihood the negative event will occur (for example almost every time versus one time out of 1 million) are different, since even if a hazard or danger is significantly great, a risk could be minor if the chance of the hazard could happen is small. Therefore when people talk about risk, they should be aware of these two factors. One illustration of this is that while the potential danger related to airline travel is great (a crash often results in death), the probability of a crash occurring is very small (few accidents occur each year). When making decisions involving risks, one should consider both the danger level (high or low) and also the chance it will occur.
II. Risk Management and Decision Making
Almost every action or choice carries some amount of risk. The act of making a decision involving risk involves the process of risk management. Risk managers, including food safety regulators, use the theories of risk assessment, risk analysis and risk management to decide which measures to use to protect public safety. Risk assessment and risk analysis involve considering the degrees of risk and possible options for reducing the risk and the costs for each of these options. Risk management involves looking at the options and choosing the optimal set of precautions to reduce risk to an acceptable level. There are often multiple ways to reduce risk, but usually there are also costs associated with these. The job of risk managers involves evaluating these costs and determining which actions are best to reduced the risk to an acceptable level. Put another way, risk management is based on the process of assessing the degree of risk and weighing policy alternatives in light of the results of a risk assessment and, if required, selecting the appropriate actions necessary to reduce or eliminate the risk. In most cases, it is impossible to reduce the amount of risk to zero. The hardest part of this process is that there usually remains a great deal of uncertainty. Another difficulty or complication is that there are often many different possible combinations of steps that can be taken that would accomplish the same overall level of safety. Therefore the public should understand that risk managers often use a “multiple-firewall approach”, whereby a set of actions or steps together reduce risk to an acceptable level. Since there are usually many different way to reduce risk and many combinations that could work equally well to reduce risk, the risk managers need to decide on the most appropriate mix of measures to fit the given circumstances. Regulators are not the only ones who engage in risk management. We all do in our daily lives, probably without realizing it.
Just to give a simple example that is unrelated to food, research shows that many injuries occur in the bathroom. We can reduce our risk of being injured in the bathroom by taking actions such as making sure appliances are unplugged, making sure the floor is dry, putting rubber mats in the shower, etc. These actions significantly decrease the chance of injuries, and entail costs or burdens that most people are willing to shoulder. The only way to reduce the risk of getting hurt in the bathroom to100% is to not go in the bathroom, but this is not really an option anyone would choose. Another example is the choice whether or not to ride a motorcycle. A motorcycle is a relatively risky way to travel. We can reduce our risk of getting hurt on a motorcycle significantly by wearing a helmet, wearing clothes made of leather, driving the speed limit, and wearing reflective clothing. We can reduce our risks even further by taking a driver safety course. Each of these actions reduce the risks, but bare costs such as money, time and perhaps other kinds of things like comfort. For some people these extra costs are not worth it so they may choose to ride the motorcycle without some or all of these additional precautions. For some, even with these precautions, the risks associated with riding a motorcycle are too great, even with these risk reduction measures, so they will choose not to ride the motorcycle at all. Smoking and skiing are other examples of activities that carry risks but that people routinely choose to engage in to one extent or another. Everyone is doing simple risk analysis and risk management when making these decisions.
III. Risk Management as it Relates to Food Safety
These same principles can be applied to decisions related to food. For instance, poultry can be infected with Salmonella and if a person eats this infected poultry they can become extremely sick. Therefore, eating poultry meat contains certain risks of becoming ill or dying from Salmonella and regulators must decide which measures to take when it comes to reducing the risk of people becoming ill from eating poultry. There are various ways to reduce the likelihood of people getting sick from eating poultry meat such as precautions on the farm to prevent the flocks from becoming infected, testing birds on the farm and at slaughter, keeping the meat chilled during and after slaughter, decontaminating the meat with chemicals or irradiation, and educating the public on safe handling practices during preparation such as how to avoid cross contamination and how to properly cook the food. Food regulators must look at all the possible steps that could be taken from the farm to the plate and ultimately determine the best way to protect public health. Most experts agree that using a combination of these risk management options is the best way of achieving a reduction of the risks from Salmonella, however the challenge is to find the optimal combination of options. A similar set of questions must be considered by both food safety regulators and consumers when deciding how to limit the risks associated with consuming marine products that potentially contain high mercury levels, such as tuna and dolphin.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization says that decisions on acceptable levels of risk should be determined primarily by human health considerations. However, consideration of other factors (e.g. economic costs and benefits, technical feasibility, and societal preferences) may be appropriate in some risk management contexts, particularly in the determination of measures to be taken, but these considerations should not be arbitrary and should be made explicit.
IV. Risk Communication
Obviously, risk assessment and risk management relating to food safety requires comprehensive research, and is a matter of national importance. People want to know what decisions are made concerning the safety of the food they eat, they want to know the basis for those decisions, and they often also want to be involved in the decision making process. Therefore, risk communication is a very important component of risk management. Agencies in charge of regulating food safety need to educate the public on their risk analysis and management decisions, allow the public to give meaningful input, and in the end explain why the final decisions were made. It is usually not practical or even possible to provide 100% safe food, therefore it is important for people to understand the risks they might be facing so that they can make informed decisions. Furthermore, the media should make more efforts to responsibly help the public understand food safety risks in a rational context to avoid unnecessarily spreading fear, panic, or misunderstanding.
Recently in Japan because of the BSE outbreak, the concept of risk has been in the media a lot, but it has often been hard to understand or mixed with emotional discussions. Based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) April 2006 announcement, the number of BSE cases in U.S. cows might be four to seven cattle among the approximately 42 million that are consumed annually. Regarding the probability of a person contracting the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) by consuming BSE infected beef, in the UK that ratio was approximately 0.001 person per BSE cattle. That would bring the likelihood of a person getting vCJD in the U.S. to .004 per year or 1 person in 250 years. If specific risk material is removed, the chance of getting vCJD becomes even smaller than that. Can this small risk be reduced even further? One option for is surveillance. The U.S. spent 158 million dollars for enhanced surveillance program since June of 2004. The Government of Japan has been spending approximately 40 million dollars annually for blanket testing. It is known that blanket testing misses BSE infected cattle under the age of 30 months because of a low accumulation of prions, which cannot be detected, so even that does not bring the risk down to zero. Some experts say that blanket testing of all cattle for BSE has little to do with risk reduction and more to do with public perception. These types of considerations are examples of aspects that Government decision makers use to consider how to assess and manage the risks associated with BSE.
V. Perceived Versus Actual Risks
We need to be aware that there is a large gap between perceived risks and actual risks and when we hear about food safety related topics in the media they are often addressing perceived risk instead of real risks. For example, the most commonly cited or talked about food safety issues lately seem to be pesticide residues or biotechnology. The fact is that in reality, there have been no reports of anyone dying in Japan or becoming sick from these things in recent years. However in 2005, there were 1545 incidents of food poisoning in Japan, in which 27,019 people were affected and seven died (1). Salmonella is one of the major microorganisms causing food poisoning in Japan. In 2005 Salmonella infected 3700 people after 144 incidents, and one person died. Recently, two school children in Osaka were infected by Salmonella and sadly, one of them died. Raw eggs are suspected to have been the cause (2). It is well known that eating raw eggs can cause people to become sick or die from Salmonella, especially during the summer months. However raw eggs are commonly eaten in Japan. Clostridium is also a common microorganism causing food poisoning in Japan, and it infected 2643 people in 27 occasions in 2005. Clostridium is a type of food poisoning that can be found on meat, poultry, gravies, casseroles, stews, and other pre-cooked foods. It originates on uncooked meat or poultry and can either cause illness if it is transferred into food from the hands of those preparing it or if spores that survived the cooking process are allowed to germinate at room temperature after cooking. Clostridium-related food poisoning is commonly seen at schools, camps, banquets, and buffets where food has been cooked in large quantities and then held for too long at room temperature.
Food poisoning is often caused by improper handling of food in the home or in the food service industry. On July 20, 2006, 77 school children in Tokyo suffered from food poisoning, caused by solanine, an alkaloid contained in various plants. In this incident, the school children harvested potatoes grown in the school as a class project, but did not fully remove the peels and/or buds (3). Also, in 2005, 25 people were poisoned from consuming blowfish, and two of them died. Only cooks certified by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare are allowed to cook blowfish in Japan, however it is sometimes cooked illegally. Gathering wild mushrooms is a popular activity in many countries, including Japan, even though food poisoning from wild mushrooms is common. Three people died from accidentally eating poisonous toadstools in 2005. Accidental food poisoning including death is not newly emerging phenomenon in Japan. From 1981 to 2004, each year over 34,000 people on average suffered food poisoning and 9 people died (1). People die from eating poisonous toadstool or illegally home-cooked blowfish almost every year in Japan, however some people continue choosing to eat these risky things.
When asked about food safety, Japanese consumers often report being most afraid of agricultural chemicals and imported food, however, there were no cases of food poisoning caused by agricultural chemicals in 2005. Also, there were no cases of food poisoning directly linked to contaminated or unhealthy imported food. Why are people so afraid of these things, then? This can partly be contributed to the fact that people often fear things they can’t control more than things they can control. Two Japanese words, anzen and anshin or safety and feeling of trust, are popularly used across Japan when talking about food. In a recent internet search using the three Japanese words for anzen, anshin and food, over 3.7 million sites were found (4). These concepts might also explain why Japanese consumers tend to have an image of domestic products being safer than imported products. A poll shows that more than a half of consumers believe that domestic agricultural produce is safer than imports, even though there is no statistical data showing imported food is better or worse than domestic in the sense of food safety. Consumers should realize that the Japanese Government and food safety regulators are doing their best to ensure that food is safe, but they should also realize that no food is 100% guaranteed to be safe whether it is grown domestically or imported.
A better understanding of the concept of risks and risk management might go a long way in calming the fears that many Japanese consumers have about food safety. Also, a very important component of risk management is clear, interactive communication with consumers and other interested parties. In Japan when it comes to food safety, it seems that this part of the process could be improved and might lead to more informed and beneficial discussions of this important issue.
- MHLW - Food poisoning and monitoring report (in Japanese). 2006. http://www.mhlw.go.jp/topics/syokuchu/index.html
- Asahi Shinbun Online Kansai Edition (in Japanese). 2006/07/10.
- Yomiuri Shinbun (Yomiuri newspaper) (in Japanese). 2006/07/21, page 35.
- Searched by www.google.co.jp with Japanese words corresponding to safety (anzen), feel of easiness (anshin) and food (shoku) at July 22, 2006.