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Industry Viewpoint: Risk, communication, food safety — and a week in Italy

I spent a week in Rome at the end of August and loved every minute of it. But not for the reasons you might think.

I spent more than 35 hours that week in a conference room at the United Nation’s headquarters working with 12 other risk communication and food safety professionals from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. We were recruited by the Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization to draft a handbook on risk communication in food safety.

The handbook, to be completed in early 2014 after field testing and review, will be a resource for governments as well as food safety and health professionals, or anyone else needing to communicate about food safety.

Although there are several very good FAO/WHO documents on risk communication, this one focuses strictly on communicating risks about the safety of food. U.N.-member countries identified this as a need, and the United Nations responded. If there were ever any doubts that communicating about food safety is important and that it is a global issue, this should put them to rest.

After reviewing the outline that we had drafted over the course of two conference calls and many email exchanges, the group split up into five teams, each one assigned to draft a chapter. My teammate, a well-known risk communication researcher from the United Kingdom, and I were assigned Chapter 1 — The Introduction. There are three subsections of this first chapter that I want to share here because they are the underpinnings of any fresh produce company’s crisis or recall communication plan. These subsections are the definition of food safety risk communication, its importance, and why risk communication about food safety is unique.

Effective food safety risk communication is the proactive exchange of information and opinions specifically about the risks and risk-related factors associated with food safety.

Fresh produce companies can practice good food-safety risk communication by being the first to communicate potential risk associated with their product. Where I have found this to be a particular challenge for companies is in the social media world.

For example, a company may issue a press release about a recall and then hope that the news doesn’t reach their Facebook friends.

Surprisingly, in some cases this strategy has actually worked out (although I never recommend it), but in far more cases, “friends” always find out, and they are bewildered at best and more typically angry that they didn’t learn of the risk on the company Facebook page. The lesson: be proactive with food risk communication.

Food safety risk communication is important because it helps people make more informed judgments about food choices.

It provides people with information about food-safety risks and what is being done to manage these. If possible, it should also include information about what individuals can do to protect themselves and others from the food-safety risk.

This can be a challenge for the fresh produce industry because there is no consumer-acceptable kill step and because produce is extremely perishable — potential problems are often identified after the product has been consumed. This makes communicating about what is being done to mitigate and manage risks critical to establishing trust and maintaining consumer confidence.

Food-safety risk communications is used in crisis situations when there is an immediate or serious threat to public health, such as in the case of foodborne pathogens. It is also used in ongoing situations when the perceived risk exposure occurs over time, such as in the case of pesticide residues. The principles of risk communication (among them openness, transparency and timeliness, which may lead to the development and maintenance of trust) are similar for either situation, although the tactics and strategies will differ. In fact, the principles can be applied to just about any risk situation.

So what makes risk communication about food safety different from, say, communicating about the risks of cell phones or cars? It is about food.

Although the joint FAO/WHO working group members came from different countries, with different culinary preferences, there was consensus that within each of our countries, food raises special risk communication challenges because:

  • Complete avoidance of food risks is not possible; we must all eat food.
  • Food has cultural, symbolic, familial and religious contexts.
  • People’s food choices are often well established or traditional in origin.
  • People may not want to (or be able to) change their diets or behaviors, despite the risk.

Food-safety risk communication must therefore consider the risk perceptions, cultural factors and context, as well as the needs of the target audience.

All fresh produce companies should understand food-safety risk communication and its unique role in communicating to their audiences. Whether during a recall or on an ongoing basis, understanding how your audiences perceive risk and how they value your specific produce item will help formulate an effective risk communication strategy and messages.

And you’re in luck, because in 2014 there will be a joint FAO/WHO handbook on this very topic.

Oh, and in case you are wondering what I did during my two free afternoons in Rome — I searched for fresh produce markets, of course!

(Amy Philpott is an accredited public relations professional and the senior director at Watson Green LLC, a public communications firm in Washington, DC, specializing in issue management and risk communications in the life sciences realm. She assists companies and organizations in the fresh produce, nut and processed foods industries with their crisis and recall communication needs. She also helps companies develop and evaluate crisis management plans, recall training programs and reputation management strategies. She may be reached at aphilpott@watsongreenllc.com)