By Ben Chapman and Don Schaffner

We spend a lot of time talking about food safety risks to various stakeholders, including consumers. As co-hosts of “Risky or Not”, we know food safety issues are rarely that simple, although we do our best. Explaining complexities, putting risk into context, and sharing information in a way that empowers people to make informed decisions isn’t easy. As we look at consumer behavior, whether it’s following cooking instructions or deciding to eat raw cookie dough, we think the food safety community can do a better job of communicating risk. That’s why we were thrilled to contribute to the recent Food Safety Forum hosted by the American Frozen Food Institute, with a diverse set of colleagues for a frank discussion about how to improve communication around food safety risks, and ultimately impact behaviors.

The Food Safety Forum differed from previous discussions around food safety risks in many ways. First, it focused on the individuals who buy, eat and make food in their homes. Who do they trust? What’s confusing? How do you reach them effectively? The conversation touched on many related topics, including the need for additional research on the impacts of consumer messaging, the difficulty in measuring the effect of that messaging on prevention and the idea that the risk of foodborne illness varies based on population demographics. Several panelists noted that more attention is often paid to headline-grabbing messages telling audiences what not to eat, rather than messages on risk mitigation steps or when a particular food safety issue has passed. 

Simplifying food safety communications is a challenge that all panel members — from consumer advocates to academics, representatives of government agencies, trade associations, and companies — can address. The food safety community realizes that nothing in the world is risk-free, even if some people want an assurance that that food is “safe.”  It is a delicate balance between creating a sense of urgency when one is warranted, and not manufacturing a crisis where one doesn’t exist. The Food Safety Forum brought together the key experts to dig deeper into these tricky topics.

We would like to highlight several notable take-home messages from the Food Safety Forum.

1. Teamwork and collaboration are key. It takes everyone and every step in the food system to drive food safety. Whether this is how messages are developed within a government agency, the importance communicators using consistent messages (e.g. “cook, clean, chill, separate”), or the way that the Netflix documentary Poisoned showed that food safety is a shared responsibility. 

2. Communication doesn’t necessarily prompt behavior change. When it comes to food handling practices, one panelist noted that “habits that began generations ago continue to this day.” Consumers seem willing to accept some food safety risks if there’s a perceived benefit, such as eating raw dough and batter. However, they may not understand the urgency of the situation or the potential direct impact in other cases (e.g. “check your pantry or fridge to see if you have the recalled product.”) More research is needed in evaluating how consumers interpret food safety messages and which messages result in the desired behavior.

3. Headlines matter. Lengthy press releases that don’t use consumer-friendly language are almost worthless. Media members seeking to glean key points from those press releases aren’t usually food safety experts. Key messages should fit within the bounds of a social media post or cable news scroll. 

4. Clear, action-oriented messaging that is tailored to your audience is important. There was consensus among Food Safety Forum panelists that describing recalls as “voluntary” and done “out of an abundance of caution” can send the wrong message to consumers. Since not all messages are relevant to all consumers (such as undeclared allergens) and good messaging should reflect this fact. Positive messages that focus on what to do, such as washing their hands, are preferred over telling people what not to do or avoid. Finding a clear, concise message in a way that resonates with consumers and provides the information needed to take action, remains a challenge that warrants additional effort and discussion.

5. Benefits are often overlooked. Outbreaks and recalls are often associated with foods that provide substantial health benefits. Poor communication can create a lasting suppression of purchasing decisions that might lead to avoidance healthful foods longer than needed. Empowering consumers to understand personal risk and make informed decisions is the ultimate goal. But the food industry also needs to couple the benefit messages with what has changed within the food system to address or manage risks. One can’t happen without the other.

AFFI’s Food Safety Forum provided a wonderful venue to discuss these issues. It was exciting to hear about how companies and consumer groups are leveraging technology to facilitate rapid and relevant food safety information to consumers. Science changes and so does society, so communication vehicles and modes also need to change. We also continue to evolve our own approaches based on what we learned at the Forum. This will help us maximize the effectiveness of our own communications and ultimately to help individuals make informed choices about avoiding foodborne illness. 

About the authors: Ben Chapman an Associate Professor and Extension Food Safety Specialist at North Carolina State University and Don Schaffner, Distinguished Professor and Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University.