An evaluation of the crucial role of risk communication in dealing with public controversies.
Communicating the nature and consequences of environmental and health risks is one of the most problematic areas of public policy in Western democracies. Given the perceived risks associated with the food we eat, chemicals in the environment, and modern technologies, consumers need clear and timely explanations of the nature of those risks - but they rarely get them. Using a series of case studies, Douglas Powell and William Leiss outline the crucial role of risk management in dealing with public controversies and analyse risk communication practice and malpractice to provide a set of lessons for risk managers and communicators.
The first case study deals with the mad cow fiasco of 1996, one of the most expensive and tragic examples of poor risk management in the last twenty-five years. For ten years the British government failed to acknowledge the possibility of a link between mad cow disease and Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human equivalent, until increased scientific evidence and public pressure forced them to take action, resulting in the slaughter of more than one million cattle. The second study looks at what is commonly known as hamburger disease, caused by a virulent form of the E. coli bacterium, which has struck thousands and killed over thirty people in the last few years. Despite its widespread effects, it is unclear whether scientific knowledge on preventing the disease is reaching the public. Other case studies include the use of a genetically engineered hormone to increase milk production in cows, health risks associated with silicone breast implants, public controversies surrounding dioxins and PCBs, and the introduction of agricultural biotechnology.
These case studies show that institutions routinely fail to communicate the scientific basis of various high-profile risks. These failures to inform the public make it difficult for governments, industry, and society to manage risk controversies sensibly and often result in massive costs. With its detailed analyses of specific risk management controversies, Mad Cows and Mother's Milk will help us avoid future mistakes.