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Keywords:

  • Acrylamide;
  • bisphenol A;
  • food colors;
  • public distrust;
  • risk communication

The communication and regulation of risk has changed significantly over the past 30 years in Europe and to a noticeable but lesser extent in the United States. In Europe, this is partly due to a series of regulatory mishaps, ranging from mad cow disease in the United Kingdom to contamination of the blood supply in France. In the United States, general public confidence in the American government has been gradually declining for more than three decades, driven by a mix of cultural and political conflicts like negative political advertising, a corrosive news media, and cuts in regulatory budgets. While the former approach is based on an objective assessment of the risk, the latter is driven more by the perception of the risk, consumer sentiment, political will, and sectoral advocacy. In this article, the author examines three U.S.-based food case studies (acrylamide, bisphenol A, and artificial food colorings) where regulations at the local and state levels are increasingly being based on perceived risk advocacy rather than on the most effective response to the risk, be it to food safety or public health, as defined by regulatory interpretation of existing data. In the final section, the author puts forward a series of recommendations for how U.S.-based regulators can best handle those situations where the perceived risk is markedly different from the fact-based risk, such as strengthening the communication departments of food regulatory agencies, training officials in risk communication, and working more proactively with neutral third-party experts.