Pointing the finger: communicating food risk accurately and quickly
Food safety scares need to be handled delicately. While communicating information about contamination to the public as quickly as possible is of utmost importance, so too is accuracy. If health authorities are going to point the finger at a particular producer, they need to be absolutely sure of where the blame lies.
When German health authorities incorrectly linked a deadly E. coli outbreak to Spanish cucumbers in 2011, consumers panicked and shunned European fruit and vegetables. Farmers across the European Union watched produce rot in their fields and warehouses, losing millions of euros in the process.
To avoid such confusion occurring again, FoodRisC - an EU-funded research project - has developed an online resource centre designed to help stakeholders create better strategies to disseminate information on food risks and benefits.
“The centre provides guidelines, case studies, tools and tips to facilitate decision-making and suggests concrete strategies for action,” said Rui Gaspar, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Research and Social Intervention in Portugal, who led the development of the project toolkit.
“Thus, communicators can provide responsive, authoritative and meaningful communication about food-related risks and benefits.”
To develop the online resource, the team tapped into the power of social media. “Evaluating Google searches, Twitter feeds and blogs allowed us to understand more about the public’s information-seeking behaviour and their perceptions of food risks,” said Gaspar.
Monitoring this flow of information can provide agencies with an early warning of outbreaks, Gaspar says. For example, a key giveaway is numerous people in one particular area Googling common symptoms of food poisoning. Specialist apps can be developed to provide targeted contamination alerts to groups such as peanut allergy sufferers, Gaspar says.
However, some experts believe that social media presents challenges, rather than benefits, for communicators.
“There is less knowledge about who is communicating what to whom,” said Lynn Frewer, a professor of food and society at Newcastle University, UK. “Although communication activity regarding a certain topic can be monitored in the social media, the impact on risk-related behaviours is very difficult to monitor.”
Frewer also believes that once an institution begins to use a particular social medium, it can render it unfashionable. For instance, younger people now prefer Instagram to Facebook as it is ‘edgier’ and not used by their parents. “So, for this reason, social media may have unexpected limitations as a public health tool,” Frewer said.
The immediacy of social media can lead some communicators to panic, other experts say. “There can be a pressure to respond rashly, rather than in a more considered way,” said Mary McCarthy, whose research at University College Cork includes food risk communication. McCarthy emphasises the need to identify the characteristics of a risk, establish trust and also identify the characteristics of the different individuals with whom the dialogue is taking place.
However, McCarthy points out that while it is important, communication is only one step in an effective food safety system that protects citizens.
“People will act to protect themselves, and where they have lost trust in public agencies, they will make their own decisions on how best to do this,” said McCarthy.
“The ideal scenario is to avoid getting into a situation where you have to communicate alarming news to the public by having a robust food safety system in place, where the supply side is monitored, audited and verified so that risks are caught early.”
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