“The only certainties in life are death and taxes”

Prof. Andreas Hensel, President of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, on perceived and actual risk, consumer fears about contaminated food, and the meaningfulness of tattoos

Professor Hensel, you are an expert when it comes to risk. What do your studies show – what risks are people most concerned about?
The studies paint an interesting picture. We have a social science department at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, which conducts a lot of research into how risks are perceived in the general population. This research shows that many citizens have quite a realistic perception. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and unhealthy or disordered eating regularly come up as three major health risks in the five most mentioned risks.

Well, this is a very positive result, don’t you think?
Yes, but when we ask people to assess the risk of specific health and consumer issues, the results are very different. Comparatively low risks then appear right at the top of the rankings, for example “residual pesticides in food,” “microplastics in food,” and “genetically modified food.” On the other hand, important issues such as “food hygiene at home” or “Campylobacter in food” – now the most common germ in foodborne infections – weren’t causes of any great concern. Let’s put it this way: People are aware of the greatest risks to health, but there is a huge gap between the assessments of experts and laypeople on a wide range of health and consumer issues.

How do people actually perform a risk assessment? What needs to be taken into account?
The general public generally consider a risk to be less significant if it is something that you administer yourself or something you can opt out of. Someone who smokes or drinks does it of their own volition. This doesn’t mean that you don’t know about the dangers. But it is just seen as a personal problem. It is a completely different story when the risk is perceived as being unavoidable. Dioxin in eggs, glyphosate in beer, microplastics in water – this is what makes the consumer’s soul revolt. The idea that you are being poisoned essentially awakens our primal instincts. A lot of people react to such reports with suspicion and aggression, which is completely understandable. It is not surprising that conspiracy theories and messages of hate surround topics like these.

How objective is this assessment?
Objectivity is not a benchmark for this topic. Evolution has equipped humans with a special sensorium to protect them against dangers. In the modern world, this warning system malfunctions all too easily. The fear of poisoned or contaminated food was well founded in the past. These days, when the quality of our diets is better than ever, this mistrust is just as – or even more – widespread as ever but usually without reason. In contrast to this, our internal alarm bells don’t start ringing every time we shovel too many goose legs, fries, or cream pies into our mouths. An unbalanced and rich diet can make you ill, but this wasn’t an issue in the Stone Age – back then every calorie was welcome and certainly wasn’t cause for any panic.

“Our internal alarm bells don’t start ringing every time we shovel too many goose legs, fries, or cream pies into our mouths.”

So should we rely on our personal instincts or hard facts, for example when trying to decide whether tattoos or glyphosate pose a greater risk to our health?
Decisions like these are not just based on calculated risks. People who get tattoos have what they consider good reasons to do so. Maybe they want to impress someone and are willing to accept being pricked with a tattoo needle and dyeing their lymph nodes to achieve this. This probably seems like a relatively small price to pay if you are able to win over your love interest with a bold tattoo. Tattooing may be ill-advised from a medical point of view, but it can ultimately serve a purpose. On the other hand, those who are worried about chemicals will probably opt for organic carrots or grapes due to their fear of glyphosate. However, you will consume just as much pesticide in these products, even though it hasn’t been synthetically produced. The benefit of this is therefore highly questionable.

Is risk awareness something we can learn?
Our modern lifestyle is a challenge. Whether it relates to medical treatment, a healthy diet, investments, or the weather forecast – we need to consider uncertainties and weigh up risks and benefits in countless areas of our lives. That’s why risk awareness is so important. It helps us to make the right decisions. It is essential that our education system teaches at least the basics of risk assessment to give our natural intuition the boost it needs.

“People who get tattoos have what they consider good reasons to do so. Maybe they want to impress someone and are willing to accept being pricked with a tattoo needle and dyeing their lymph nodes to achieve this.”

When do people feel particularly unsafe?
As I already mentioned, when a risk appears to be unavoidable – for example, a danger lurking in our food, in the water, or in the air. The second factor is a high level of uncertainty. If the risk seems vague, our imagination runs wild. Do you remember BSE, better known as “mad cow disease”? Scientists initially struggled to define the magnitude of the risk to humans. “Serious” estimates ranged from a handful to tens of thousands of deaths. With such vastly differing predictions, it is hardly surprising that consumers panicked.

Is there such a thing as zero risk?
It is a well-known fact that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, and these are hardly things to aspire to. In all other situations in life, we need to negotiate uncertainties and therefore risks to a greater or lesser extent. Consequently, there is no such thing as zero risk. To put it bluntly, the belief in absolute certainty is a risk in itself because it deprives us of countless opportunities. For example, someone who won’t leave the house because they are afraid of being hit by a falling brick.

“Our modern lifestyle is a challenge. Whether it relates to medical treatment, a healthy diet, investments, or the weather forecast – we need to consider uncertainties and weigh up risks and benefits in countless areas of our lives.”

According to your own experience, do most people see a “risk” as a threat or an opportunity?
It is often forgotten that those who take risks generally expect to benefit from them. Those who dare, win! So there is a hidden, extremely positive, and even enticing undertone that resonates here. Despite this, risks are usually seen as causes for alarm in our more cautious society.

The Risk Expert

He knows where the real dangers lie: Prof. Andreas Hensel has been President of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in Berlin since 2003. The BfR carries out assessments on the safety of food and animal feed, as well as on the safety of chemicals and products, and advises the German government on health issues. Hensel is a veterinarian, microbiologist, and hygienist and spent many years working as a university professor at the universities of Vienna and Leipzig. The 58-year-old is certainly clear on one thing: perceived and actual risks are worlds apart.