The Risk-Monger

The Risk-Monger can now announce that the source of the E. coli outbreak is German pork. He has no evidence to support this claim, but he doesn’t need any. He has the precautionary principle and a nervous population.

First it was Spanish cucumbers (and maybe tomatoes and lettuce). No evidence! Now we are told the likely source are bean sprouts from a particular organic farm in northern Germany. All tests have so far come back negative (do we really need evidence?), but the tenacious authorities are still testing. The view of the German authorities is unapologetic, that this is a major health crisis and any other consequences pale in comparison. One official was quoted, and I wish I were making this up, that the precautionary principle is more important here than any losses in the farming sector or loss of consumer confidence in vegetables.

This is troublesome, not only because eating vegetables in itself is precautionary (dietary fibres, essential vitamins, cancer protection …); at least that is what I tell my son when I battle with him about eating more than just meat and gravy. What is more problematic is that there are German officials (I dare not use the term “competent authorities”) who really believe that their precautionary decisions have no negative consequences.

I strongly believe that precaution does have consequences (as many who RSS this blog know) – in particular, the implication that with precaution, authorities no longer need to think. I do indeed wish German officials would think before they raise precautionary alarms over important elements of a balanced diet. After more than ten years working in risk communication, I can safely say that this is the worst case of public servant ineptitude I have ever seen. Some simple lessons for my German regulatory friends:

  • Evidence matters – don’t speculate on sources of the outbreak and assume that is leadership. Even Sanco Commissioner, John Dalli told you to shut up until the evidence is clear.
  • Saying you don’t know is not a sign of weakness. People will accept progress reports rather than solutions.
  • Every word you use in a time of risk crisis (especially around the food chain) has a very heavy weight and strong emotional reaction (people feed their children and need confidence). Wordsmith your texts diligently.
  • Contextualise: explain the risks, likelihoods and severity, advise on preventative measures (like washing your vegetables) and try to calm the situation (rather than adding to the hysteria).
  • Trust is lost by the foot and gained by the inch. By making superficial suppositions and being brutally wrong, you have lost miles of public trust.
  • When you are so deep in a hole, suck it in and work with authorities that still have credibility (EFSA, WHO, universty labs).
  • Work on your CV. As a whole, I have not seen one single element of responsible governance during this crisis and given such disgraceful behaviour, you should all be fired.

But the problem runs deeper. Certain German risk scholars have been promulgating a theory of participatory risk management – inform the public of all the information so they can feel engaged in the risk management process and arrive at a collective consensus. I have disagreed with them on many occasions over this form of relational trust building (usually at conferences where only the risk wonks attend). In certain situations, I believe giving conflicting or frightening information to someone who cannot process, act or emotionally respond to this information only creates dread and a decline in trust in authorities (many people still have, as they should, a patriarchal assumption that the authorities should be competent enough to ensure their safety). I have noticed that those in the risk world who disagree are usually anarchistic sociologists.

So German authorities follow the advice of their risk consultants and throw all the information out there (E. coli, salmonella, nuclear energy …). What comes back from the public is foggy fear, media opportunism and societal quagmires, leaving precaution as the easy option. I hardly see the word “management” anywhere in this process. Dare I say this is a form of relinquishment?

But if precaution never entails negative consequences, then it is OK, right? What of the farmers? How long will the German government pay them off? As vegetable consumption drops, and it may take years to recover (using Walkerton or BSE as guides), what of the increased cancers (particularly colon, liver and stomach) that can be expected over the coming decades from the dietary imbalances? What of the greater risks of obesity, cholesterol and heart disease that will follow increased consumption of processed foods? Shouldn’t German authorities think a little before they pontificate precaution as a form of enlightened responsibility?

Today (June 7) I bought an iceberg lettuce and two cucumbers for under a euro. While I spared a thought for the plight of the farmers suffering from this German enthusiasm for precaution, I began to prepare for my next precautionary confrontation: getting my son to eat this salad (for his health!).

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Comments

  1. Did the German authorities do anything wrong? Answer: No, they didn’t. It would be done exactly the same way again. No glitches whatsoever were pointed out.

    The drama of the veg-industry and the Southerners is pathetic and ill-informed. When health institutions issue warnings they do not care about the effects of their warnings and they shouldn’t. But those who raise their voice are not even aware of what comes from “the government” and what comes from research institutions like Robert Koch. Drama! Drama!

    President Barroso should apologize for the stupid insults of the Maltese Commissioner John Dalli.

    1. Thank you for your comment but I cannot agree with you at all.
      To make a decision without evidence is an act of stupidity. To inform others of such a decision is reckless irresponsibility. When it affects others (how they look at eating vegetables, their long-term health effects from dietary shifts, their ability to continue farming …), the German goverment proved to be dangerous.
      You ask if they did anything wrong – no, that is the beauty of precaution, you are never wrong (safe and never sorry) – see my earlier blogs in February. Here is my question: did the German authorities do anything right? Absolutely not.

  2. Imagine you are in a room, in Parliament and there is an unidentified person walking the corridors reported to kill people, probably a gun man. What would the security do when their recent info is that he wears a beard? Wouldn’t they evacuate political exposed persons and others? Wouldn’t they search for bearded persons?

    The new E Coli is a deadly infection!
    “did the German authorities do anything right? Absolutely not.”

    They shared the most recent information of the investigation and tried to avoid the further spreading of the desease. Didn’t cover anthing up. That what’s counts. And health research institutions recommended not to eat cucumber because it was and is still is seen as a potential source of the infection. The way you find out is that doctors ask infected persons what they have done and there are medical standard methodologies how to track an infection.

    If you had the slightest idea about infection you would know that there is never a 100% diagnosis even when it’s pathological. People are dying from an infection. Beeing the medium doesn’t mean someone did wrong. The historical plague (which eliminated large parts of the European population) was probably spread by cloth. Rabies is spread by animals. Once rabies breaks out in the Netherlands the nation gets isolated and you cannot export animals anymore. Do you want scientific proofs first that animals are infected? That is not the way it works. Infections ought to be kept under control because nothing is worse than an epidemic of a deadly infection.

    Citizens are not forbidden to eat cocumber, and the health institutes just issue recommendations. These consumers simply don’t because they decided not wanting to take the risk. What we see now are upcoming import bans of other nations. No one can blame them for that.

    My father died from an unidentified infection with an unknown source. His grandmother died from the Spanish influenza which cost more lives than the WWI fighting, his uncle died from pneumonia in 1948. The objecitve of health institutions is to prevent an epídemic outbreak, economic loss doesn’t matter in their equation. Lives are at stake.

  3. If a man with a beard is killing people, we should notify the police and security services to look for a man with a beard. We should not inform the general public that a Muslim terrorist is attacking us – that is not evidence based and irresponsible.
    Health institutes test and follow up infections – authorities decide what to communicate to the public, how and when.
    People die from infections and exposure to pathogens all too frequently. In Belgium, around 1500 people die every year from exposures contracted from visits to hospitals for other reasons. Millions die annually in Africa from sanitation issues of which E. coli is a serious source. I am sorry for your great grandmother, but our greatest societal achievement since the Spanish flu is hygiene (soaps and disinfectants) – we still have far to go, but our rising global population levels indicate the success we have had here.
    Should we cause panic, close borders or stop eating vegetables across Europe because of a localised outbreak around Hamburg? Or should we work to educate the public on how to wash their vegetables, knives and hands?

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