By Jennifer McEntire, Founder, Food Safety Strategy
“I am confident in the safety of the food I eat.” Five years ago, only one-third of U.S. consumers strongly agreed with this statement. While they held the government primarily responsible for food safety, followed by food companies and farmers, when it came to trusting them, farmers were third, federal regulators were eighth, and food companies were eleventh. And we in food safety wonder why consumers don’t always adhere to good food safety practices or follow label instructions. How can food safety experts from government, industry and academia communicate with consumers in a meaningful way? How can we convey that just because something can happen, the likelihood that it will happen varies? And how can we convince consumers to take steps to reduce their risk of foodborne illness?
The 2023 virtual Food Safety Forum, organized by the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), will address these questions and more. Taking place Sept.13 and free to attend, the Food Safety Forum is taking a deep dive into the state of risk communications. Science is complicated. Consumers want simple, unambiguous answers, and misinformation is abundant. Effective communication is hard and communicating public health risk — the likelihood that one will get sick, not to be confused with hazards — is an ongoing challenge.
Like it or not, food safety professionals are risk communicators. Family and friends often ask for my opinion when they see alarming headlines about the safety of our food supply. On a broad scale, scientists are seldom viewed as great communicators and most of us are not trained that way. But facts and data don’t speak for themselves. Most consumers prefer a “tell me what to do” approach rather than delve into the complexities of contamination rates and dose responses. AFFI’s Food Safety Forum is bringing together the right group of experts from diverse backgrounds to address these topics with the goal of communicating in a way that improves public health.
Perhaps the most notable component of the Food Safety Forum is the breadth of stakeholders from industry, government, academia and consumer groups, that all see the need for better communication of food safety risks. Many of these groups, historically viewed as adversaries, have common goals: we all want safe food and for consumers to view and act on food safety risks appropriately. The collaboration and diversity of partners for this year’s Food Safety Forum are unprecedented.
The event will kick off with the well-known Don Schaffner of Rutgers University discussing the “Current Reality of Risk Communication.” As co-host of the “Risky or Not” podcast, Don is perfectly positioned to talk about risk as distinct from hazards in a food safety context and how to explain these concepts to consumers.
No discussion of food safety communication would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room: lawyers. Whether it’s communicating about a serious outbreak, a recall that warrants immediate action or safe food handling practices, regulators are often criticized for being too slow, too fast and rash, too simplistic or too complicated. Elizabeth Fawell, an attorney with the Hogan Lovells law firm, will moderate a discussion with experts who know first-hand the challenges public health officials face when trying to clear food safety communications internally. Joining to share learnings from their experiences are Brian Ronholm with Consumer Reports, former deputy undersecretary for food safety with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), Roberta Wagner with the International Dairy Foods Association who formerly worked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and FSIS, and Frank Yiannas, former deputy commissioner at the FDA.
Consumers are the ultimate target of food safety communications. When it comes to educating and empowering people to make informed decisions about food safety risks, the rubber meets the road for the scientific community. Who is better to address the consumer view than Mitzi Baum of STOP Foodborne Illness, who represents families of consumers impacted by foodborne illness? Joining Baum are Kristine Butler with FDA’s communications and public engagement team, Ben Chapman with North Carolina State University (and the other half of the “Risky or Not” podcast), and communications representatives from food retail and national food brands. Together, these communicators will speak to their mechanisms to earn trust and gain attention.
Finally, the Food Safety Forum will look to the future. How can risk communicators learn from previous missteps? How can we break through the noise? How can we narrow the gap between mitigating food safety hazards and communicating public health risks? Representatives from the Association of Food and Drug Officials, Consumer Reports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the food industry will discuss the lessons learned and what it means for the future of communicating food safety to consumers.
Moving the needle on consumer behavior is a lofty undertaking and discussion is needed on how to identify effective communication mechanisms and overcome barriers to meaningful communications. The collaborators convened by AFFI come from different perspectives but are united by their commitment to not only improve food safety, but to also improve consumer understanding of complex food safety topics so they can best protect their health. This topic is not going away. Attend this free event on Sept. 13 to learn more about current challenges and approaches for the future. Register now at www.affi.org/food-safety-forum.
About the author: Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D., is the Founder of Food Safety Strategy LLC. With 20 years of food and beverage association experience, she combines her technical background and regulatory insights to help the food industry assess and manage food safety risks in order to protect public health. McEntire earned a B.S. in food science from the University of Delaware and Ph.D. from Rutgers University as a USDA National Needs Fellow in food safety.
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