For over a decade, I’ve ben hearing how the public – whoever that is – may not understand restaurant inspection results.
There’s only a couple of things I tell my kids, especially the 3-year-old: anyone who says, “trust me” is immediately untrustworthy, and anyone who claims to be speaking on behalf of the public, or all Americans or all Canadian women is only talking about themselves (I also tell the kids to keep your stick on the ice and don’t take wooden nickels).
CBS reports that as the City of Chicago has rolled out a new Web site with thousands of restaurant inspection results online, alderman Tom Tunney, who is a restaurant owner himself, says some people may get the wrong impression.
The point that Tunney makes is that the inspection reports online require a little study and not just a glance.
Then do some research and figure out what people and food service operators want instead of saying how hard it is.
The Capital Press reported yesterday that an Oregon hazelnut packer has refused to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a list of its farmer suppliers the agency requested as part of an investigation into an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has sickened seven in the U.S. and apparently two in Canada.
The statements by the growers and packers involved with producing hazelnuts were textbook examples of what not to do when foodborne illness is linked to a food product.
Polly Owen, manager of the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board, said most producers would prefer not to be visited by regulators from the FDA, but the decision whether to turn over supplier lists is ultimately up to handlers, adding, "We’re not going to try to tell any industry packer what they need to do.”
Isn’t that what producer organizations are supposed to do – provide decent advice to growers so they can limit their loses during an outbreak and use the attention to build consumer trust?
The FDA requested the information after hazelnuts packed by the George Packing Co. of Newberg, Ore., were voluntarily recalled in connection with several illnesses from E. coli bacteria, said Shaun George, a principal of the company.
"I think what they’re really interested in is the farmers. They’re concerned because they’re picked up off the ground.”
The company has refused to turn over the supplier information because it’s proprietary and because hazelnuts haven’t been proven to be the cause of the E. coli outbreak, he said.
Now the hazelnuts have been proven to be the cause of the outbreak, with a standard of proof lacking in most other outbreaks of foodborne illness.
Yesterday, lab testing in Minnesota confirmed E. coli O157:H7 contamination of in-shell hazelnuts (also known as filberts) collected from the home of one of the seven people so far confirmed sick – same genetic fingerprint. The contaminated hazelnuts are part of a multi-state recall announced last Friday, March 4, by DeFranco and Sons, a California-based nut and produce distributor. DeFranco and Sons is a re-packing company in Los Angeles, Calif., said Jerry DeFranco, a principal in the firm. All of the hazelnuts were bought from George Packing Co., he said.
"It’s not like we’re chopping them up or doing anything with them here," said Defranco. "We’re just passing them along."
Owen, of the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board, said E. coli O157:H7 is believed to originate in ruminant animals, so growers do their best to keep orchard floors clean, adding, "It’s not economically feasible to keep deer out of every orchard."
Is that an indirect admission that deer could be the source of this latest outbreak and that hazelnuts are not immune to nature?
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.
In a press release and full-page letter in USA Today on Wednesday (thanks, Margaret – dp) peanut producer pooh-bahs announced they will set up shop in Vanderbilt Hall in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal March 4 and 5 to meet consumers, answer questions and give away samples of peanuts, peanut butter and other peanut items. The event kicks off the farmers’ efforts nationally to rebuild consumer confidence in products made with the crops they grow.
Roger Neitsch, Texas peanut farmer and chairman of the National Peanut Board — the research and promotion board funded by peanut growers, said,
“No one is more deeply disturbed by the recent salmonella crisis than the thousands of USA peanut farmers and their families. We may be peanut farmers, but we also are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters — and consumers. So we understand and share the concerns being experienced these days by families across America.”
But is recruiting celebrity chefs and athletes, while portraying farmers as producers of all things safe, really enough?
Noted science-and-society type, Dorothy Nelkin, noted in 1995 that, efforts to convince the public about the safety and benefits of new or existing technologies — or in this case the safety of the food supply — rather than enhancing public confidence, may actually amplify anxieties and mistrust by denying the legitimacy of fundamental social concerns. The public expresses a much broader notion of risk, one concerned with, among other characteristics, accountability, economics, values and trust.
As I’ve said before, the best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.
The makers of Jif and Peter Pan have already gone on record saying they will not disclose their own food safety test results.
Nelkin, D. 1995. Forms of intrusion: comparing resistance to information technology and biotechnology in the USA in Resistance to New Technology ed. by M. Bauer. Cambridge University Press, New York. pp. 379-390.