Lamenting the end of food safety month

Playing the calm, cool Danny Glover to Doug’s crazed Mel Gibson, I wanted to contribute to the food safety month discussion.

I’m not a fan of causes of the month; either an issue is important year-round or it’s not. Food safety month, established sometime in the mid-90s (thanks Google news archives), is supposed to be an awareness-raising time. The goal is to focus consumer food safety communication efforts and coordinate messages.  But does this even work?

Liz Redmond and Chris Griffith published research in 2006 that showed even targeted, specific social media messages (which isn’t really what is seen in the many food safety month press releases) may impact practices right after the audience is exposed to them, but behavior changes were not sustained 4-6 weeks after being exposed:

Results suggested that “one-off” food safety interventions developed and implemented using a social marketing approach may result in a short-term improvement of consumer food safety behaviors.

The unfortunate part about food safety month is that messages get recycled from previous years (sometimes with updated temperatures, sometimes not). It appears that contrary to CDC’s FoodNet report suggestions on enhanced measures, folks are just throwing the same messages year after year. The majority of messages focus on what consumers can do in their home, but few stories exist about what industry, regulators and researchers are doing to address food safety risks. If food safety is a farm-to-fork problem (kind of what HACCP is built on, addressing risks at different points) then our food safety messages need to be farm-to-fork.

Over a decade of food safety months and we’ve got the same annual estimate of foodborne illness incidents. If there’s no measurable impact, why bother?

Let’s get rid of the one-off consumer-focused message blitz that is food safety month.

The best campaign idea I have for food safety month 2009 is a funeral of sorts. The campaign would be focused on lamenting the demise of food safety month and the birth of “Every month is food safety month”.  We can have a New Orleans jazz-type funeral (because they really do them up right with the parade and all) with the cook, chill, clean, separate motto being pulled behind in an elaborate horse-drawn carriage. It will be a somber event for some, but others will rejoice in shedding the tactics that may result in only short-term behavioral changes. New messages and mediums are needed to really affect foodborne illness incidents.

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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.