Strengthening risk communication for improved food safety management

Countries from Europe and Central Asia come together in Budapest to learn more

Effective food safety risk communication is essential to protect public health and the environment, and to enhance trade of safe agri-food products. It is vital for science-based risk assessment and evidence-based management of important food safety issues and adverse food safety events, including emergencies. Therefore, developing and maintaining sustainable risk communication capacity and expertise is an important priority for many national food safety authorities.

FAO and WHO pre-tested a new training Handbook for Risk Communication in Food Safety at a four-day regional workshop held in Budapest from June 3-6, 2014. The participants included 35 specialists representing agri-food and public health authorities from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Netherlands, Spain, Tajikistan, Turkey and Ukraine.

The highly interactive format of the workshop included a simulated pressconference with national food safety authorities regarding a highly-sensitive nation-wide foodborne outbreak resulting in several deaths. This exercise was coupled with others designed to model decision-making under conditions of uncertainty concerning what, when, and how to communicate information during a food safety emergency.

These enabled an extensive exchange of lessonslearned within the different contextual situations present across the countries represented. The last day of the workshop was used to identify specific actions and improvements further needed to strengthen national risk communication capacity and to share countries’ ideas about potential pilot projects to be implemented with the support from FAO and WHO.

What did the participants say about the training?

“Effective management of food safety risk requires good collaboration between different public authorities, such as agriculture, food safety and health. The workshop provided us with practical, useful and well structured tools, for efficient intersectorial collaboration before, during and postfact food safety outbreaks said Carolina Cerniciuc, Head of Public Health Department of the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Moldova.  She added that the structure and format of the workshop, created a friendly environment for participants from different countries for better understanding of the importance and benefits of risk- communication in food safety issues.

The workshop provided a good opportunity to learn about all aspects of food safety risk-benefit communication, including exchange of lessons learned through the past experiences” said Dr. Orom Ziyoev, Senior Specialist at the State Veterinary Inspection Service from Tajikistan, a country that recently joined the World Trade Organization and is in the process of building capacities to apply international standards.   

 “Risk communication in food safety is a relatively recent discipline, a high impact factor in food safety risk management and in high demand for capacity development in the region. Risk communication in food safety needs to be better understood for its efficient use”, said Eleonora Dupouy, Food safety and consumer Protection Officer, REU.

To aid in this development, FAO, in collaboration with 10 risk communication specialists from government, industry and academia from different regions, and WHO, created a comprehensive, user-friendly training Handbook on Risk Communication applied to Food Safety. The handbook is designed as a modular training package. It starts with the goals, concepts and principles of risk-benefit communication. It discusses the importance of risk perception and explicates good practices, key factors and considerations for effective risk-benefit communication essential to promote ongoing food safety practices and to handle food safety emergencies. These  were illustrated through real-life examples extracted from case-studies collected in collaboration with colleagues from several regions and countries. The workshop instructors were Drs. William Hallman from Rutgers University in the United States and Lynn Frewer from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Both are internationally recognised food risk communication experts and advisors.

The training package was developed by the FAO Food Safety Unit (AGDF) in collaboration with WHO, with funding provided by the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). The workshop was co-organised with the FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia under the umbrella of the Regional Initiative on Agri-food Trade and Regional Integration. The main objective of the food safety component of this program is to improve national and regional food safety control systems.

The workshop was the first of a series of regional and national workshops planned by the FAO in collaboration with WHO and in future will include participants from other food safety stakeholders (e.g. consumers, industry) and sectors (e.g. plant health, feed safety, animal health).