I’m going back to pajamas: Food safety risk communication


The European Food Safety Authority has provided two new tools to assist with risk communication during a food safety outbreak.

spock.logicThe U.S. International Food Information Council says that “pajama-clad bloggers” can “cry wolf on a global stage” and that “every food-related kerfuffle becomes an opportunity for tweeting, fact or fiction, which is actually believed and followed by millions, fueled in large part by the fallibility of social media users themselves and an inability to judge risks rationally.”

If only we were ore rational (which means, see the world as I see the world, believe what I believe).

I’ll stick with the Europeans on this one.

EFSA created the guidelines together with EU Member States based on best practices gained from previous food-related crises. Developed in cooperation with members of EFSA’s Advisory Forum Communications Working Group, this document will help ensure consistency and coherence when communicating in a crisis.

Best practice for crisis communicators: How to communicate during food or feed safety incidents also clearly explains the role and responsibilities of EFSA and Member State organisations during the various phases of a crisis to improve preparedness for any future outbreaks that may cross borders.

In November 2015, EFSA carried out a simulation exercise with representatives of EU Member States, the European Commission and the World Health Organization. Their feedback was incorporated into the final version of the guidelines.

Shira Tabachnikoff, an international cooperation adviser at EFSA, said: “Preparation and cooperation are key elements to successfully communicating during a crisis. The simulation exercise brought home the need for a strong network and clear processes. These guidelines will prove useful if and when they are needed.” 

The crisis communication guidelines include templates such as a practical checklist, a media inquiry log and a social media comments log.

Surveys still suck: US and UK ask food safety questions but answers don’t predict behavior

Good money follows bad.

The top food safety concern among Americans is no longer “foodborne illness,” having been overtaken by “chemicals in food,” according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey.

larry-david-yawn-knicks-otHowever, when it comes to risks to consumers, foodborne illnesses are far and away the greater health concern.

This year, 36 percent of Americans cited “chemicals in food,” such as pesticide residues, as the most important food safety issue for them and their family, edging out “foodborne illness from bacteria” (34 percent). The increase in the number of people citing “chemicals in food” as their top concern is striking. Last year, only 23 percent of Americans chose that option.

116lzja.jpgThe UK Food Standards Agency in their biannual survey found the top two food safety issues of total (ie spontaneous plus prompted) concern for respondents were food hygiene when eating out (37%), and the use of additives in food products (29%).

The top wider food issues of total concern were the amount of sugar in food (51%), food waste (49%) and the amount of salt in food (47%).

Self-reported food safety surveys still suck, especially web ones, IFIC 2006-2010

Consumer attitudes toward food safety and their food-handling practices help to determine their risk of foodborne illness. The food safety questions in the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation Food and Health Survey have tracked these attitudes and self-reported practices using an annual, web-delivered survey each year since 2006, with more extensive food safety questions starting in 2008.

Participants were members of an online panel compensated with a point system by a survey company, were recruited annually, and reflected the latest Census data for the United States population on key Census characteristics, including age, gender, race, and level of educational attainment. Each year’s Survey included approximately 1,000 participants.

From 2008 to 2010, when the Survey included detailed food safety questions, participant confidence in the food supply increased (P = .000) and respondent reports of the following key food safety practices — hand washing (P = .001), washing cutting boards (P = .000), separating raw meat and poultry from ready-to-eat food products (P = .000), cooking to required temperature (P = .001), and properly storing leftovers (P = .000) — as well as following microwave cooking instructions declined (P ≤ .001).

White, more highly educated respondents, and respondents from households that included individuals who were particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness, were more likely to report following recommended food safety practices. Survey respondents reported using expiration dates (68%), ingredient listings (54%), allergen labeling (9%), organic labeling (16%), and country of origin labeling (16%) on package labels to make food purchase and consumption decisions.

Consumers used a range of sources for food safety information. The most trusted sources were government agencies/officials (39%), health professionals (37%), health associations (31%) and television news programs (31%).

Consumer responses show gaps in knowledge and implementation of food safety behaviors that can be addressed by food safety educators, and demographic differences documented by survey responses can help educators put their information into contexts that will make it more compelling. Food safety information needs to have consistent, actionable messages distributed through multiple delivery systems to reach target audiences.

International food information council foundation food and health survey, 2006–2010, food safety: a web-enabled survey
Food Protection Trends, Vol. 32, No. 6, Pages 309–326
Mildred M. Cody, Robert Gravani, Marianne Smith Edge, Carrie Dooher
and Christy White

Deceit and deception: just another day for PR flunkies and their overlords

 “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the super-supreme of backhanded apologies.

“I’m having an affair with a younger, hotter, smarter person and want a divorce.”
“That’s really hurtful.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“I’ve appreciated working with you for 20 years but am going to join a startup and cash in on all our corporate secrets because you have bad breath.”
“That’s really ungrateful.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“I’d like to invite you, as a valued food blogger, to Sotto Terra, an intimate and underground Italian restaurant in New York City, where you will enjoy a delicious four-course meal hosted by George Duran, the chef who hosts the Ultimate Cake Off on TLC and learn about food trends from a food industry analyst, Phil Lempert. But really we’re going to serve Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna and Razzleberry Pie, by Marie Callender’s, a frozen line from ConAgra Foods, and record your reaction on hidden camera.”
“That’s really deceitful.”
“(We) understand that there were people who were disappointed and we’re sorry — we apologize that they felt that way.”

The last one actually happened.

The backhanded apology came from PR-type Jackie Burton at the Ketchum public relations unit of the Omnicom Group, hired by ConAgra to orchestrate the stunt.

As usual, ConAgra is behind the times. The bloggers were having none of it and took to the Intertubes to vent their gastronomic rage.

As reported in the N.Y. Times:

“Our entire meal was a SHAM!” wrote Suzanne Chan, founder of Mom Confessionals, in a blog post after the event. “We were unwilling participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.”

On FoodMayhem.com, a blog by Lon Binder and Jessica Lee Binder, Mr. Binder wrote that during a discussion led by Mr. Lempert before the meal, Mr. Binder spoke against artificial ingredients while Ms. Binder mentioned being allergic to food coloring. When the lasagna arrived, Ms. Binder was served a zucchini dish, while Mr. Binder was served lasagna.

“We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods,” wrote Mr. Binder. “And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.” (Among the ingredients in the lasagna: sodium nitrate, BHA, BHT, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.)

On the evening she attended, Cindy Zhou wrote on her blog, Chubby Chinese Girl, that during the pre-meal discussion, she “pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. … Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium.” (An 8-ounce serving of the lasagna contains 860 milligrams of sodium, 36 percent of the recommended daily allowance.) I’m NOT their target consumer and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen foods after tricking me to taste it.”

Four years ago next month, ConAgra Banquet pot pies sickened at least 272 people in 35 states with salmonella. When the outbreak was initially announced, Con Agra said, don’t worry, just follow the instructions and everything will be fine.

Those instructions sucked. And didn’t work, as shown in my kitchen-experiment at the time. So ConAgra finally decided to recall the suspect pies, changed a few things, and everyone went back to sleep.

In June 2010 a variety of ConAgra’s Marie Callender frozen food thingies sickened at least 29 people in 14 states with salmonella.

And now this month, the entire PR apparatus of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the International Food Information Council, and the other usual suspects is using its bully pulpit of Consumer Food Safety Education month to tell consumers that when it comes to frozen meals, ‘cook it safe.’

The press materials are akin to a users manual for a $0.50 pot pie. And if someone gets sick, it’s their own fault for not knowing how to properly measure the wattage of their microwave using a measuring cup, water and ice (did MacGyver write the instructions?)

Officially, USDA gave up blaming consumers for cooking mishaps with ground beef back in 1994 as E. coli O157:H7 burst onto the scene. Not so with frozen thingies.

“Frozen or refrigerated convenience foods are popular items in many Americans’ homes, but there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to cooking these foods,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “Some of them can be microwaved, but others can’t. The ‘Cook It Safe’ campaign is designed to heighten awareness of this problem and correct misconceptions, putting an end to needless, preventable illnesses.”

If consumers get sick and have grudges about complicated instructions, the lack of clear differentiation between raw, frozen meals and cooked, frozen meals, and questions about why raw hazardous ingredients are in frozen meals, no worries: everyone will be really sorry you feel that way.