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ABSTRACT

Food safety experts have a key role in constructing food risk messages and thus their perceptions will influence how food risk issues are communicated to the public. This research examined the perceptions of food safety experts regarding public understanding of food risk issues and food risk messages on the island of Ireland. It also looked into expert views of the barriers to effective food risk communication and how to improve food risk messages. One hundred and forty-three experts, working in areas related to food safety, completed an online questionnaire. Questionnaire and statement design was guided by the results of four in-depth interviews with food safety experts. The findings indicate that most experts surveyed have little confidence in the public's understanding of food risk issues, their assessment of food risks, their ability to deal with scientific information and their food safety practices. Experts are of the view that the public under-assesses the risk associated with some microbiological hazards and over-assesses the risk associated with other hazards such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The opinion of experts with regard to GMOs is not supported by previous consumer research. Experts noted that the level of education and age were important determinants for the level of understanding of food risk issues and messages. Experts were of the view that early intervention via school curricula was the best method to improve public understanding of food risk messages in the long term. Furthermore, experts are of the view that the media have the ability to improve awareness and knowledge about food risk issues but believe that the media tend to communicate information that is misleading. The majority of experts also believe that they should communicate uncertainty but are not confident that the public is able to cope with this uncertainty. Many of the experts also indicated a desire for training on how to interact with the media. The results may be used by those experts who are involved in the construction of food risk messages to improve the design and communication of food risk messages.