General consumer knowledge of and engagement with the production of food has declined resulting in increasing consumer uncertainty about, and sensitivity to, food risks. Emphasis is therefore placed on providing information for consumers to reduce information asymmetry regarding food risks, particularly through food labeling. This study examines the role of food labeling in influencing consumer perceptions of food risks. In-depth, 1-h interviews were conducted with 24 Australian consumers. Participants were recruited based on an a priori defined food safety risk scale, and to achieve a diversity of demographic characteristics. The methodological approach used, adaptive theory, was chosen to enable a constant interweaving of theoretical understandings and empirical data throughout the study. Participants discussed perceiving both traditional (food spoilage/microbial contamination) and modern (social issues, pesticide and ‘chemical’ contamination) risks as present in the food system. Food labeling was a symbol of the food system having managed traditional risks, and a tool for consumers to personally manage perceived modern risks. However, labeling also raised awareness of modern risks not previously considered. The consumer framing of risk presented demonstrates the need for more meaningful consumer engagement in policy decision making to ensure risk communication and management meet public expectations. This research innovatively identifies food labeling as both a symbol of, and a tool for, the management of perceived risks for consumers. Therefore it is imperative that food system actors ensure the authenticity and trustworthiness of all aspects of food labeling, not only those related to food safety.
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