Food-safety messengers need to “hit home, hit the heart and hit hard,” Dana Pitts told attendees of the Consumer Food Safety Education Conference in early December. Until very recently, Pitts was associate director of communications for the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases. For several months last fall, Pitts was working in CDC’s emergency operations center on Ebola and then moved to Guinea for a month to work on health promotions and risk communication. She has since moved over to CDC’s Center for Global Health from NCEZID, but drew some of her advice for food-safety educators on “meaningful messengers” from Guinea. “If I wasn’t convinced before, after Guinea I am absolutely convinced that the key to successful leadership is influence, not authority,” Pitts said. “How much can you get away with ‘because I said so?’ That stopped working with my kids when they were two.” It often takes the right messenger to get an important message through to consumers, she said, even those whom you might not think would be a “hard sell.” The three partners Pitts encountered in Guinea helped educate people about early treatment, isolation, safe burial and other important messages about Ebola. They included the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea (whom she watched address a group in their local language of Susu), a nurse and survivor of Ebola, and a dynamic Imam who spoke about avoiding clashes between religion and science. These speakers’ abilities to “hit home, hit the heart and hit hard” can also be used in food-safety education, Pitts said. All foodborne illness outbreaks start at the local level, so it’s important to address the needs of locals. How might communication differ between California and Louisiana? What local context or language could be important for education? The stories of people who have suffered from foodborne illness can be very powerful, especially in dispelling myths about food safety. Pitts called people such as Dana Dziadul and Barbara Kowalcyk “heroes” because “they have really devoted their lives to making a difference.” It’s also important to use science in food-safety education. Pitts noted that, on CDC’s website, people tend to be most interested in the information on pathogens. “I want to grow our food-safety portfolio, but I have to grow it through what people look at — they look at our science,” she said. Pitts said she wants to find more communicators who can explain the “whys” behind foodborne illness in ways that the general public can understand because “science sells.” Lastly, Pitts said, partnership is key. “Sometimes you just don’t have to be the meaningful messenger, but you have to partner with one,” she said. “That’s what I learned in Guinea, that’s what I learned here, and that’s what I want to leave you with.”

  • Dave Walpuck

    Another part of the meaningful message when it comes to food safety should be “Liability”.

  • Stan T

    I do not have the stats but it appears most food safety related fatalities/illnesses occur as a result of cross contamination at the processor level and ordinary consumers have a much smaller role to prevent it from further spread of the disease. So the above mentioned strategies might work well to prevent Ebola spread in Guinea. US public is a lot more ‘aware’ than Guineans. I agree science will have a greater impact than anything else in US. You can sell anything in America if it is packaged in Science!!