Improving sampling and risk communication at FSIS

Chuck Dodd is dreamy – as a student, that is.

What teacher wouldn’t be proud when a student does a class assignment, and it eventually gets published in a peer-reviewed journal?

Chuck took my graduate course, Food Safety Risk Analysis, in the early part of 2008. For the final assignment, students are required to take a food safety risk issue of their choosing, and develop a risk analysis report for an audience, like a regulatory agency, integrating risk assessment, management and communication.

Chuck’s report – after editing and thoughtful comments from colleagues – was recently published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, entitled, Regulatory management and communication of risks associated with Eschericia coli O157:H7 in ground beef.

The Kansas State University press release that went out this morning says, in part,

What consumers may not be finding out about recalls and the inspection process, however, could make them doubt the effectiveness of what is actually a pretty good system to keep food safe, according to Kansas State University researchers.

Charles Dodd, K-State doctoral student in food science, Wamego, and Doug Powell, K-State associate professor of food safety, published a paper in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease about how one government agency communicates risk about deadly bacteria like E. coli O157 in ground beef.

Publications, Web pages and recalls are all used in this risk communication.

Dodd said that although the Food Safety and Inspection Service generally does a good job of keeping meat safe, it’s easy for consumers to think the opposite, particularly when a recall tells them that the food in the fridge or pantry may be dangerous. In their study, Dodd and Powell looked at what information consumers can take away from the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Web site, and suggest government agencies can more clearly communicate their role in keeping the food supply safe.

"We as Americans tend to expect more from regulatory agencies than we should, so we set ourselves up for disappointment," Dodd said. "Occasionally, regulatory agencies may create unrealistic expectations by the way they communicate with the public. The message of our paper is to say that the Food Safety and Inspection Service is doing a good job, considering the amount of resources it has. We are trying to open up dialogue about how its role could be communicated more effectively." …

Testing is just one tool that the Food Safety and Inspection Service uses. Its role is to monitor what other stakeholders are doing to keep food safe. "As a regulatory agency, the Food Safety and Inspection Service is monitoring food safety, not necessarily testing it themselves," Dodd said. "I think that’s what a lot of us consumers misinterpret. We need to remember that regulatory agencies allocate, not assume, responsibility."

He got an A in the class. And he collects his own cow pies for sampling (left).

Dodd, C.C. and Powell, D.A. 2009. Regulatory management and communication of risks associated with Eschericia coli O157:H7 in ground beef. Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, 6(6): 743-747.


Foodborne illness outbreaks and ground beef recalls associated with Escherichia coli O157:H7 have generated substantial consumer risk awareness. Although this risk has been assessed and managed according to federal regulation, communication strategies may hamper stakeholder perception of regulatory efforts in the face of continued E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks associated with ground beef. To mitigate the risk of E. coli O157:H7 contamination in ground beef, the beef industry employs preharvest and postharvest interventions, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provides regulatory oversight. Policy makers must understand and clearly express that regulation allocates, not assumes, responsibility. The FSIS role may be poorly communicated, leading consumers, retailers, and others in the farm-to-fork food safety system to misrepresent risks and creating unrealistic expectations of regulatory responsibility. To improve this risk communication, revisions may be needed in FSIS-related documents, Web pages, peer-reviewed publications, and recall announcements.