Want effective food safety communication? Put a name and a face on victims

Acording to the Western Mail, in a speech tomorrow, Professor Hugh Pennington will tell world food safety experts at FoodMicro in Aberdeen that “we owe it to people like Mason Jones” to ensure “top-rate” safety systems are put in place. Mason Jones was a five-year-old boy who died after eating a school lunch in October 2005. Some 150 schoolchildren were sickened in the outbreak traced to the John Tudor & Son meat plant in Bridgend, which supplied hundreds of schools in the Valleys with cooked meats. Owner William Tudor was sentenced to 12 months in jail in 2007 after admitting breaching food hygiene rules and supplying contaminated meats to schools. A public inquiry into the outbreak, which Pennington led, was chronicled on barfblog.

What struck me about Pennington’s comments was how he, like Doug and I have been doing through barfblog and food safety infosheets, was putting names and faces on the victims. Pennington is calling out the food safety professionals to make food safety personal.  Food safety communication isn’t just about the statistics, it’s about the stories.

We’re not just making this stuff up.

Morgan and colleagues (2002) evaluated various safety messages targeted at farmers regarding the use of personal protective structures for vehicles, by presenting message combinations and surveying 433 members of the target audience. Although the researchers did not look at practices (self-reported or otherwise) of the target audience, and only measured what the respondents felt would have the highest impact with them, they found, that messages based on stories, and those that were meant to elicit fear about individual practices had more impact with than presenting consequence-based statistics alone.  Slater and Rouner (1996) investigated the effectiveness of a variety of messages containing a combination of narratives and statistics around the safety of alcohol consumption with a convenience sample of 218 undergraduate students. Slater and Rouner (1996) found that survey respondents who were non-believers prior to the presented information, rated messages with narratives as higher quality and perceived them as more effective.  Slater and Rouner (1996) also found that statistics alone only reinforced respondents who identified themselves as already believing in the messages. Psychologist Howard (1991) argues that narratives and storytelling are effective methods in conveying information and suggests that there is a better understanding of one’s place in a system when individual sees himself or herself as an actor within the context of a story.

Our research supports this concept of storytelling: the most impactful infosheets (from a food handlers’ point of view) are the ones which put a name and a face on victims, the food safety offenders and their establishments.  Food safety communications is about storytelling, and personalizing the outcomes for the front-line staff who are in control.

Howard, G. S. 1991. Culture tales: A narrative approach to thinking, cross-cultural psychology, and psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 46: 187-197.

Morgan S.E., Cole H.P., Struttmann T. and Piercy L. 2002. Stories or statistics? Farmers’ attitudes toward messages in an agricultural safety campaign. Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health. 8:225-39.

Slater, M. D., & Rouner, D. 1996. Value-affirmative and value-protective processing of alcohol education messages that include statistical evidence or anecdotes. Communication Research. 23: 210-235.


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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.