17 Mar 2020

Perceiving safety and risk: Consumers versus manufacturers

A company's perspective on the hazards presented by a foreign material in food may be quite different than a consumer's perspective. While a company is more likely to know what the foreign material is, where it came from, and what types of hazards it may present from a chemical or physical safety standpoint, the consumer may have little to no understanding of what the foreign object is, how it got there, and  whether they should  be concerned about their own safety or a family member's safety. We refer to this concept as perceived safety.

From a consumer's perspective, individual opinions on a foreign material concern will vary greatly. There are a few trends that can be anticipated and taken into consideration by a company as they determine the best course of action in response to a foreign material contamination event.

First and foremost, a consumer's level of knowledge of the foreign material itself will drastically affect their concern about their own, or their family member's safety if exposed. If a consumer can deduce where the material came from (i.e., the packaging itself) based on its color, texture, and consistency of this would be likely to skew their level of safety concern toward a low perceived risk. However, if the same consumer finds an unrecognizable glob floating within their food, has no awareness of what the substance is, if it has chemical or physical safety concerns, and  cannot assess whether the food itself is safe to consume given this contamination -they would likely perceive the risk as high. To a consumer, this substance could be mold or bacteria that might present a danger if consumed; even though a company might know that the unrecognizable substance is actually safe (perhaps it was an adhesive used in the manufacturing process of the milk carton).

Additionally, when it comes to perceived safety and risk consumers are likely to be extra sensitive when products are intended for children or can be opened by children (i.e. a juice box). As a result, it can be expected that a consumers' level of concern will be high given the vulnerability of young consumers.

For both manufacturers and consumers, knowledge is power. Manufacturers have more knowledge about their products and processes and can use that knowledge to potentially respond to consumers finding foreign materials in their product. For consumers without that intimate product knowledge, a foreign material represents something unknown and potentially harmful to themselves or their loved ones. It's our job at Intertek to help companies manage this "fear of the unknown" by identifying potential hazards and risks of a foreign material, including the risks related to a consumer's perception of various products and brands.

At Intertek, we use the science behind safety to provide insight and guidance on design, development, implementation, usage, and more. For more information, visit: https://www.intertek.com/product-assurance/safety/

Don't miss the opportunity to learn from the experts...

Intertek will be offering a complimentary Webinar, "Not All Foreign Materials are Created Equal" on April 9, 2020 at 11am EDT, 10am CDT, 8am PDT. Register here.


Eleanore Pittman,
Senior Safety Manager, Product Assurance
Health, Environmental & Regulatory Services (HERS)


Today's expert blogger is Eleanore Pittman. Eleanore is a Senior Safety Manager for Intertek Product Assurance and has been at Intertek for 8 years. Where standards fall short, Ellie serves to educate clients on potential product hazards and develop customized safety assessments to meet their unique needs. With her thorough knowledge of product safety, Ellie is able to consult with clients on potential product hazards and advise them on mitigation strategies that can increase their brand value by drastically reducing a product's potential to injure a consumer or result in a product recall. Ellie attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she received a B.S. in Chemistry and has also obtained an MBA from Western Governors University.

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