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.

The failure that is Food Safety Education month

Linda Rivera (right, pic from Washington Post)  is the face of everything that is wrong with Food Safety Education month.

As The Washington Post reports this morning:

In Room 519 of Kindred Hospital, Linda Rivera can no longer speak.

Her mute state, punctuated only by groans, is the latest downturn in the swift collapse of her health that began in May when she curled up on her living room couch and nonchalantly ate several spoonfuls of the Nestlé cookie dough her family had been consuming for years. Federal health officials believe she is among 80 people in 31 states sickened by cookie dough contaminated with a deadly bacteria, E. coli O157:H7.

The impact of the infection has been especially severe for Rivera and nine other victims who developed a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. One, a 4-year-old girl from South Carolina, had a stroke and is partially paralyzed.

In a baffling waste of resources, groups like the International Food Information Council, have decided that food safety education month – that apparently starts today – is all about educating consumers with sanitized messages; that if consumers were only made aware they had a role to play in food safety, outbreaks related to contaminated peanut butter, produce and cookie dough would be reduced.

Whenever a group says the public needs to be educated – in this case about food safety — that group has utterly failed to present a compelling case for their cause. ??????I cringe, and remember a Lewis Lapham column I read in Harper’s magazine in the mid-1980s about how individuals can choose to educate themselves about all sorts of interesting things, but the idea of educating someone is doomed to failure. Oh, and it’s sorta arrogant to state that others need to be educated; to imply that if only you understood the world as I understand the world, we would agree and dissent would be minimized.???

Given all the outbreaks – produce, pet food, peanut butter, that have nothing to do with consumers, any food safety information – not education — campaign should include what the World Heath Organization has been advocating since 2002: source food from safe sources. An evaluation of message effectiveness should also be a bare minimum and rarely happens.

An honest Food Safety Education month would include food safety stories, tragic or otherwise, and a rigorous evaluation of what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what can be improved, rather than a checklist of ineffective and often inaccurate food safety instructions with the cumulative effect of blaming consumers. Telling people to wash their hands isn’t keeping the piss out of meals.

But judge for yourselves in what I am sure is a completely spontaneous and unscripted video from IFIC on why ordinary consumers feel they should be doing more.