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Consumers express their concern about the EHEC bacteria

17 June 2011 Ghent University

The news coverage of the deadly  EHEC bacteria outbreak in Europe came as a bombshell. Ghent University (Belgium) examined 6132 reactions of Belgian newspaper readers after reading the first news reports. As expected, people are scared and worried, but governmental trust decreases fear and leads to a higher intention to keep on eating fresh produce. These are a few of the results from a research done by Melanie De Vocht, PhD student in Communications Sciences (UGent).

The results show that 65.5 per cent of the newspaper readers are worried and a little less (64.2%) assess the risk of contamination as high, 56 per cent is suspicious, one in five is angry and one in three is afraid. Furthermore, 31.7 per cent state that they will eat less fresh produce, three on four will alert their beloved ones, more than four in five will wash their fruits and vegetables better, and half of the readers think they can prevent the risk from happening themselves.

Women and young people are more worried

Women are more worried than men after reading the news coverage. They will wash their fresh produce more and will alert their beloved ones more than men, whereas men are more resigned. Readers younger than 35 are more afraid than 35 and over. Notable is that people under 24 and over 65 have more governmental trust than the others.

Respondents who have a low level of governmental trust, have less intentions to keep on eating fresh produce than those having a high trust level. The latter believe more that they can prevent the risk from occurring themselves.  News paper readers with a low level of trust in the government are more angry, more afraid, and more worried than readers with a high level of trust, they also assess the risk of contamination as higher.

The communication about the cause of the EHEC bacteria can have a great influence on the purchase and consumption intentions of fresh produce. After reading the newspaper article in two Belgian newspaper websites (Het Laatste Nieuws & De Morgen), the readers could follow a link to the online survey. In total, 6132 respondents filled out the questionnaire.

Comparable research in a fictive situation

In November 2010, a similar research was conducted, based on a hypothetical article about the possible risks of fresh produce on public health. In comparison with the results of 2010, the general risk assessment, the intention to wash fresh produce better and the suspicion are higher for this real-life case.


This research has been done in the framework of the European project ‘Veg-i-Trade’. Since May 2010 there are 23 international partners investigating noro- and other viruses, bacteria such as E.Coli., mycotoxins, and pesticide residues on fresh produce. Veg-i-Trade studies the possible impact of globalization and climate change on the food safety of fresh produce. The project is being coordinated by the Department Food Safety and Food Quality of Ghent University (Belgium). UGent is a member of the Centre of Excellence Food2Know. This interfaculty Knowledge Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Health groups 35 research groups, spread out over the six life science faculties (Bioscience Engineering, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Veterinary Sciences, Sciences, and Medicine & Health Sciences and Psychology).

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