Can food safety culture be taught? UK Food Standards Agency responds to E. coli O157 report

Two days ago, the parents of 5-year-old E. coli victim Mason Jones called the Welsh government response to an inquiry into the 2005 outbreak, “a bit disappointing.”

Today, the U.K. Food Standards Agency published its own response and, it’s a bit disappointing.

After a cursory reading, the FSA folks seem to acknowledge some of the major points raised by Prof. Pennington, but in the end promised more of the same (but gosh-darnnit, a bit tougher on enforcement).

Here are a few highlights:

This understanding of ‘food safety issues’ culture and ‘what works’ are core to the Food Hygiene Delivery Programme. This will be a particular challenge as local authorities’ regulatory services are facing declining resources, and increasing demands for their services. We must push more effectively in all appropriate national forums for food safety to be given more prominence by local political bodies and their officials. Our own project-based approach to delivering responses to this Inquiry, coupled with the restructuring of the Agency’s Food Safety Group, is designed to concentrate on a coordinated set of actions to achieve the desired outcomes in a holistic rather than piecemeal way.

Culture and holistic are nice words but the FSA says:

In May 2009 the FSA announced a new training course on social marketing and behavioural change for food enforcement officers. It aims to develop skills to acquire an insight into the behaviours of food business operators and consumers in order to successfully disseminate food safety messages.

What does disseminate mean in this context? What if the messages suck? How will this be evaluated. Is there any evidence that social marketing is effective in creating food safety behavior change? Those issues get to the essence of food safety culture, yet are glossed over with a training session – more of the same.