Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University (KSU), has been a food safety media guru for years–since even before Al Gore “invented the internet” in the early 1990s. With a background in microbiology and journalism, Powell uses his expertise in food science and risk analysis to disseminate useful and timely food safety information. Powell is an avid contributor to Barfblog, which features “musings about good safety and things that make you barf” and he oversees Bites, a comprehensive food safety news resource center.
Food Safety News had a chance to chat with Powell on food safety communication and regulation.
Food Safety Communication
Q: I want to ask you about the FDA’s Strategic Plan for Risk Communication that was announced yesterday. I understand you want to see more evidence and science-based risk communication strategies–is the agency’s plan a positive stop? What should they be doing differently?
A: I’ve been doing risk communication since 1993. There’s nothing new in what they announced. The fact that they announced they are going to educate people with videos shows that, at least their headline writers, have not incorporated the core basics of risk communication.
Q: So do you want to go work for the FDA and fix their communication strategy? Is this a personnel problem, is it bureaucracy, or is there a fundamental misunderstanding about risk communication?
A: I would be terrible working for any government agency. They ask me for my advice now and then, and I tell them.
It’s not hard. What they really need is people with experience with the products that they are talking about whether its food or pharmaceuticals. We run into this all the time and have for a long time [at KSU]. We work with farmers when we talk about reducing risk of the various microorganisms in fresh produce. We talk with them, we go on their farms, we figure out how they do stuff. The last thing anyone needs is someone who sits in an office.
Q: What are the most immediate change the FDA needs to make?
A: The most fundamental thing that FDA could do related to foodborne illness outbreaks is to tell the American public on what basis do they publicly announce there is an outbreak of foodborne illness–whether they do or don’t. If you go back to the Salmonella tomatoes thing last year, that’s where a lot of the problems came from. Everyone wants to know what the rules are. So if they would clearly articulate: this is when we go public, this is when we don’t, that would clear up a lot of problems.
Q: How do you see the rise of social media playing into all of this? I know you’re an active member of the twitter community, I’m sure you’re aware that FDA, USDA, CDC have twitter accounts (that don’t have a ton of followers). Are these important outreach tools?
A: We do a lot of research on food safety messages and media used to transmit those messages and we’ve published stuff on that, on twitter, on blogs–you really have to figure out what your target audience is and what’s the best way to reach them. What I don’t see anyone doing is evaluating whether it works or not. So if CDC or FDA is evaluating whether their twitters are reaching anybody I’d really like to see that.
The point is: get the right message, and then figure out whatever medium is appropriate to get it out there. Whether it’s a blog, whether it’s a twitter, whether it’s a news thing, whether it’s a news thing, or a radio interview, or a YouTube video–who knows.
Food Safety Regulation
Q: Are you following the food safety bill in the Senate?
A: Oh I follow, but I always ask myself the same question: how many fewer sick people are there going to be by the discussion today that they had? None.
Q: So you’re not hopeful that any of the elements of the legislation will have a big impact? Wouldn’t mandating increased inspection of high-risk facilities help?
A: I think there is no evidence to demonstrate that increased inspection makes food safer. I think there is lots of evidence to show that the private sector takes food safety seriously day in and day out. There is also evidence to show that they screw up now and then. But what Washington does–it’s irrelevant. They set a minimal bar. The marketplace will set a far higher bar if allowed to.
Q: Are consumers getting to the point where they’re demanding a higher bar?
A: They should be. I’ve been advocating marketing food safety at retail since spinach in 2006. I think there’s a lot of consumers who would like to buy an E. coli-free bag of spinach.
Q: If we had a perfect food safety world, if you could write the rules on this what would they be?
A: The rules would be: if you provide food to the public you are liable if it’s not safe. That means that if you provide food to the public you should promote your food safety so that all the way back down through that food safety supply system everyone has a clear message of why they should was their hands, why they should take food safety steps, why they should test the irrigation water, because they know that at the end its going to be marketed as a safe product and if people get sick it’s going to come back on them. Government is there to ensure that the bare minimum is being met.
Q: Do you think that food is safer now than it was when you entered the food safety realm?
A: There is no way to tell. The data is inconclusive.
Q: How do you choose safe food for your family? What’s the best we can do with limited information?
A: I go to the biggest grocery stores around because I know that they have procurement programs that require food safety requirements of their growers. Even then, especially with fresh produce, it’s a purchase on faith. I actively ask questions of frontline employees and routinely point out bad food safety things.
I always cook with a meat thermometer–I’m naked without one.© Food Safety News