Food safety risk communication – theory and practice

Folks are rightly skeptical about the safety of the food supply. Outbreaks of foodborne illness are happening daily, and some of the outbreaks involve levels of deception, malfeasance and yukkiness that are criminal.

Levels of trust ain’t good.

Lynn Frewer, formerly of the U.K. and now based at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, has been doing the food safety risk communication thing for a long time and is darn good at it. Frewer and colleagues published a new paper in Food Policy last week that summarized much of the existing research and some new work to map out a strategy for those who talk about food safety in public arenas.

The results validated what a bunch of us have been saying for decades:

• understand consumer risk perceptions and information needs;
• segment and target communications;
• institutions and industry must stress risk mitigation activities, including prevention and the effectiveness of enforcement systems;
• account for cultural and at-risk populations when creating messages;
• enhance transparency by making public information about ongoing management and research activities, the processes adopted regarding establishing regulatory and resource allocation priorities, and whether rapid responses by food risk managers to mitigate food safety incidents have been made;
• consumer protection and public health must be the top priority; and,
• tell ‘em what you don’t know (I’m sure that’s a scientific term).

How are such recommendations executed, especially during an outbreak of foodborne illness, when consumers are paying attention?

Gustavo Anaya, the owner of Oregon’s Los Dos Amigos Family Mexican Restaurant, issued a written apology to its customers after 30 patrons were sickened in a Salmonella outbreak linked to the Jackson Street, Roseburg, business.

Gustavo and his son, Manny Anaya, delivered letters to media outlets in Douglas County on Friday.

“We send our sincerest apologies to the people and family members who were affected by the salmonella outbreak,” the letter stated.

Saying, I’m sorry, is not always an admission of blame. It’s also a sign of empathy, that most basic of human traits, which is crucial in building trust.

Communications alone, however, are never enough. The restaurant will have issues if it is discovered to have improperly assessed or ignored food safety risks.

Cope, S., et al. Consumer perceptions of best practice in food risk communication and management: Implications for risk analysis policy. Food Policy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.04.002



As a consequence of recent food safety incidents, consumer trust in European food safety management has diminished. A risk governance framework that formally institutes stakeholder (including consumer) consultation and dialogue through a transparent and accountable process has been proposed, with due emphasis on risk communication. This paper delivers actionable policy recommendations based on consumer preferences for different approaches to food risk management. These results suggest that risk communication should be informed by knowledge of consumer risk perceptions and information needs, including individual differences in consumer preferences and requirements, and differences in these relating to socio-historical context associated with regulation. In addition, information about what is being done to identify, prevent and manage food risks needs to be communicated to consumers, together with consistent messages regarding preventative programs, enforcement systems, and scientific uncertainty and variability associated with risk assessments. Cross-cultural differences in consumer perception and information preferences suggest a national or regional strategy for food risk communication may be more effective than one applied at a pan-European level.

What Tiger and Toyota can learn from dioxin: words alone are never enough

Professional golfer Tiger Woods and Japanese automaker Toyota are both struggling under the media spotlight to repair their damaged public images and resorting to public statements and advertizing. But communications alone is never enough when faced with a risky situation – it’s the combination of risk assessment and management, along with communications, that helps individuals, corporations and governments regain trust and public favor.

New research from a team led by Dr. Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and published in the journal, Public Understanding of Science, further validate the idea that words alone are never enough when managing a food safety crisis – actions are also important.

The authors examined two incidents of dioxin contamination of food in Belgium and the Republic of Ireland in 1999 and 2008, respectively. In both cases, dioxins reached the food supply through the contamination of fat used for animal feed. The food and agricultural industries connected to each incident relied on crisis management activities of federal governments to limit adverse public reaction.

In 1999, the Belgian government delayed communicating with the public and other European agencies about possible risks, failed to acknowledge perceived risks with dioxin-laden feed, and ultimately suffered huge economic losses, a damaged food industry and deterioration in public confidence.

In the winter of 2008, the Republic of Ireland faced a similar dioxin-in-animal-feed crisis and, unlike the Belgian response, promptly communicated with the public, and acknowledged perceived risks by mandating that all pork products released for sale were to carry a special label to indicate they had no association with the potentially contaminated feed.

“Prompt communications with the public, acknowledgement of both real and perceived risks, and control of stigma surrounding a hazardous incident are important factors in effective crisis management,” said Powell. “The Irish government succeeded by not only saying the right things, but by removing potentially contaminated product from commerce in a timely manner. Actions and words must be consistent to manage any crisis and garner public support.”

Abstract below:

Government management of two media-facilitated crises involving dioxin contamination of food
Public Understanding of Science
Casey J. Jacob, Corie Lok, Katija Morley, and Douglas A. Powell
Incidents become crises through a constant and intense public scrutiny facilitated by the media. Two incidents involving dioxin contamination of food led to crises in Belgium and the Republic of Ireland in 1999 and 2008, respectively. Thought to cause cancer in humans, dioxins reached the food supply in both incidents through the contamination of fat used for animal feed. The food and agricultural industries connected to each incident relied on crisis management activities of federal governments to limit adverse public reaction. Analysis of the management of the two crises by their respective federal governments, and a subsequent review of crisis management literature, led to the development of an effective crisis management model. Such a model, appropriately employed, may insulate industries associated with a crisis against damaged reputations and financial loss.
First published on February 5, 2010
Public Understanding of Science 2010

Communicating alone is never enough: risk assessment, management and communication have to be integrated to manage anything

In the food-related risks category, Maple Leaf-listeria, Odwalla-E. coli O157:H7 and Natural Selections-spinach have all been held up as communication role models.

They all sucked. And a lot of people got sick and died.

That’s because food safety and other risks require effective and accurate assessment, management and communication. Fail at any one, and you’re going down. 

The New York Times reports this morning that the Harvard Business School teaches future executives the gold standard in brand crisis management. The model dictates that a company should communicate clearly with the public about a crisis, cooperate with government officials, swiftly begin its own investigation of a problem and, if necessary, quickly institute a product recall.

The template is based on Johnson & Johnson’s conduct in 1982 (above, right), when several people died after taking tainted Tylenol pills. The company’s reaction to the crisis is widely regarded as exemplary.

I was never impressed with Harvard. Others are. I told a leading Canadian supermarket chain years ago it was really dumb to sell unpasteurized apple cider. They didn’t pull the product until two years later when their president-thingy went to Harvard and heard from an Odwalla dude it may be dumb to sell juice with unpasteurized apple cited as the base.

But last week, Johnson & Johnson appeared to abandon its own template, stunning a few business school professors. Its conduct also drew harsh criticism from federal officials.

On Friday, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of Johnson & Johnson, announced the recall of several hundred batches of popular over-the-counter medicines, including Benadryl, Motrin, Rolaids, Simply Sleep, St. Joseph Aspirin and Tylenol.

According to a federal inspection report, the response was anything but swift. The recall came 20 months after McNeil first began receiving consumer complaints about moldy-smelling bottles of Tylenol Arthritis Relief caplets, according to a warning letter sent by the Food and Drug Administration to the company on Friday. Since then, a few people have also reported temporary digestive problems like nausea, vomiting and stomach pain, the agency said.

The McNeil unit of Johnson & Johnson had recalled some batches of the arthritis drug at the end of 2009. But the company did not conduct a timely, comprehensive investigation, did not quickly identify the source of the problem, and did not notify authorities in a timely fashion, prolonging consumer exposure to the products, the warning letter said.

Analysts said the company’s seemingly slow response appeared out of character for one of the most trusted corporate brands in America, the maker of beloved household products like Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and Band-Aids.

And the recall, they said, had the potential to encourage consumers, who may have perceived name-brand medicines as being a higher quality worth their premium prices, to switch to less expensive drugstore brands.

Johnson and Johnson also makes No More Tears baby shampoo, and, as one of the comedy shows noted last week, it still makes babies cry.