The importance of communicating context when explaining risks

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The news in the UK and in other European countries that eggs have been contaminated with the insecticide Fipronil has garnered wide media coverage.

On Thursday (10-Aug), BBC News Online reported that approximately 700,000 contaminated eggs had been imported into the UK, following as assessment by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The BBC News headline read ‘Eggs scandal: 700,000 distributed in UK’, with the second sentence of the article reading ‘The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said this represented 0.007% of eggs eaten in the UK each year and that any risk to public health was “very unlikely”  ’

How might the public interpret this assessment of the risk being ‘very unlikely’?

Does it mean that a few ‘unlucky’ people may have been exposed to eating the contaminated eggs, and so while the risk in the population is low, a few people may have been affected?

If I ate a boiled egg every day, then reading the news article so far, I would have cause for concern that I might be one of the ‘unlucky’ few.

Indeed, psychology research shows that people can have strong reactive feelings in response to a risk.

However, does the risk assessment mean that even if you were exposed to the contaminated eggs, you are ‘very unlikely’ to come to any harm?

Reading to the bottom of the article revealed some important context, including the following quote from the FSA, “While in some European countries eggs containing Fipronil residues have been sold as fresh eggs, in the UK this is not the case. Many of the eggs involved were mixed with other eggs which have not come from affected farms, so Fipronil residues will be highly diluted.

Ah, ok. So now we have some context for the assessment of the risk being ‘very unlikely’.

However, we know that people don’t always read to the end of written information, so this important context may not be read. Even if people reach the end, withholding this context might cause undue concern, albeit short-lived.

Indeed, on the FSA’s website, the context of the Fipronil residues being diluted was provided before stating their assessment of the risk.

Following alerting the BBC to this problem, they have now updated the news article (although I don’t know for sure if as a direct result of my feedback).

The important context is now much more prominent.

The headline now reads, ‘Eggs scandal: 700,000 sent to UK but risk is ‘unlikely’ . ‘

And a few sentences in, the article now reads, “The FSA said the 700,000 figure represented 0.007% of eggs eaten in the UK each year. It added that in the UK, the Dutch eggs were not sold as shell eggs but used in foods with many other ingredients – mostly sandwich fillings or other chilled foods. It said traces of fipronil – which can be harmful to humans – were mixed with other eggs so chemical residues would be “highly diluted”.

Hopefully with the context provided upfront, people can now better understand the nature of the risk posed.