A group of scientists from the Dunarea de Jos University of Galati, Faculty of Food Science and Engineering, investigated the Romanian consumers’ perspective on food safety. A profile of the Romanian consumers was drawn based on a survey focused on recognition of food hazards and capability to distinguish between pathogenic and non-pathogenic microorganisms. This was correlated with the reliability of sources providing food safety information, and consumers' awareness on certified labelled food for different management systems applied by food companies. Data were analyzed using advanced statistical tools as Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA), Principal Component Analysis (PCA) and Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA). Gaps in consumers’ knowledge and misperception of food hazards as well as information sources that consumers trust were revealed with the aim to identify educational needs related to food safety and means to deliver educational messages.

By applying confirmatory factor analysis modelling, the paper showed that it was possible to link consumers’ knowledge and awareness with their trust.

What is right and what is wrong?

High percentages of the total respondents perceived as being dangerous substances known as E-numbers (75.4%) and preservatives (63.7%), respectively. Despite what consumers believe, these substances belonging to food additives are generally recognized as safe under the conditions of their intended use and are not considered as chemical hazards excepting the cases when their concentration in food is limited for health reasons (e.g. nitrates and nitrites, sulphur dioxide).

Half of the consumers are not aware of biological hazards (mycotoxins, pathogenic microorganisms), while they perceive genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as being hazardous. Scientists do not list GMOs among biological hazards as they cannot enter into the food chain unless passing complex food safety tests.

Regarding microorganisms that could expose consumers to foodborne diseases, Salmonella (88.1%), E. coli (80.6%), and Staphylococcus (65.1%) were the most commonly known pathogens, while just a half of the respondents perceived Listeria as being dangerous (48.0%), and an alarming low percentage perceived Yersinia (16.9%), Campylobacter (21.1%), and Clostridium (28.5%) as pathogenic bacteria.

What’s in a label?

The recent EU regulations in the field of labelling, traceability and quality assurance schemes are committed to offer vast information accessible to the consumer. Besides product composition, nutritional and energy value, storage condition, due-by-date, allergens and other information, food producers are using labels to inform consumers on the certification they obtained for the quality and safety of their products. Although being aware that a certification is something good and having the specific logos printed on the label, Romanian consumers do not clearly distinguish among different certification schemes. Food safety certification is meant to provide public with confidence in the Food Safety Management System in place and, if not a condition of trade, represents a proactive action taken by food businesses operators (FBOs) to ensure that all possible risks are covered.

Food safety information sources: science books or social media?

Despite the trust in science books, only 11% of the total Romanian consumers are interested in scientific readings and this contradictory result could indicate that Romanians might be tempted to replace science with pseudoscience. When it comes to sources of their information about hazards and food safety issues, consumers prefer to rely on family and friends, so is word of mouth, mostly. If this attitude is complemented by a lack of trust in the authorities and official media channels, it could limit very much the quality of information a person is connected to. “In fact, this could predispose consumers of being victims of their own social bubble and do not let them have access to accurate information” says Daniela Borda.

Nowadays, young consumers use social media as their main channel of information for acquiring food safety knowledge. Thus, it is difficult to pinpoint where consumers’ confidence lies between the abundance of information available and the counter knowledge or the viral re-information present in the social media. “Recipe books can represent a valuable mean to deliver food safety messages and a tool for instructing consumers on how to deal with risk associated to a specific hazard while cooking” says Anca Nicolau. As example, she mentions the Recip-e-book published by the members of the SafeConsume project, which is available at http://safeconsume.eu/articles/safeconsume-recip-e-book.

How to eliminate confusion

The findings of this study showed that there are gaps in Romanian consumers’ knowledge, most of them not succeeding to discriminate non-hazards, such as additives, from hazards, and not recognizing some of the pathogens, especially those that may affect their health in our days and are categorized as emerging pathogens.

“We need to eliminate these confusions by making information more palatable for the general public” says Daniela Borda, while Anca Nicolau adds that “the findings of this study may be inspirational for building strategies for consumer education on adopting a risk-based approach to food safety not only in Romania, but in other countries too, where similar situations exist”.

Article

Borda, D., Mihalache OA, Dumitraşcu, L., Gafițianu, D., Nicolau, AI. 2021. Romanian consumers’ food safety knowledge, awareness on certified labelled food and trust in information sources, Food Control, Volume 120, 107544, ISSN 0956-7135, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2020.107544.

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Horizon 2020 project SafeConsume (Grant Agreement No. 727580). Joachim Scholderer (University of Zurich, Switzerland) and his team are acknowledged for designing and organizing the consumer survey. Valérie Lengard Almli (Nofima, Norway) is acknowledged for assisting the Romanian team in developing the part of the questionnaire that targeted the Romanian consumers.

Contact info

Anca Ioana Nicolau: anca.nicolau@ugal.ro

Photo: Anca Nicolau and Octavian Augustin Mihalache