Risk communication occurs in many different contexts and both research and experience suggest that different risk communication strategies are appropriate for these different contexts. Although there are many similarities, the strategies needed during a food safety emergency differ in many respects from strategies needed to engage the public in dialogue about risks and benefits of new food technologies, and from those for communicating about chronic low-level food-related risks. Items to consider when developing strategies for risk communication during a food safety crisis are presented separately here, following a discussion of more general risk communication requirements.
Many considerations for effective risk communication, especially those involving the public, can be grouped in a sequence following the systematic approach of the risk communication process. This starts with gathering background and needed information, followed by the preparation and assembly of the message and its dissemination and distribution, with a follow-up review and evaluation of its impact.
Risks that involve some or all of the following aspects tend to concern the public more than those risks that lack these aspects:
Therefore, in order to mitigate public concern about risks, the following strategies may be used:
Risk communication is obviously very important during a food safety crisis; however, it is equally important when there is no immediate crisis and routine risk analyses are being made to address identified hazards. The following should be considered in preparing risk communication strategies in such situations.
The typical food safety crisis envisioned here is one in which disease-causing organisms are discovered in a widely consumed food. The strategies suggested, however, also will apply to other kinds of crisis situations involving, for example, chemical contamination or physical adulteration of foods.
While the general strategies for non-crisis situations referred to previously still apply, a crisis situation calls for special considerations. Communication strategies should be an integral part of the crisis management plan. Effective crisis management requires a comprehensive plan that can be updated through periodic evaluations. Having good channels of communication to the public during a crisis is extremely important; first to prevent panic and second to provide positive information on the situation to help decide on what course of action should be undertaken. This should include information on:
To achieve these objectives the risk communicator may:
Those responsible for managing a food safety crisis should establish a network for interactively sharing information. Central government research institutions, local governments, hospitals and private enterprises should make information accessible to each other in an accurate, concise and usable form.
Crisis Situations: International Responses
Early warning systems in countries or regions should be established to allow rapid communication of emerging crises. Once the cause of a foodborne disease outbreak has been established, action can be taken across international borders. For example, European Sal Net has helped prevent widespread illness due to specific outbreaks.
Member governments should follow the Codex Code for Ethics for International Trade in Food (8) and Guidelines for the Exchange of Information in Food Control Emergency Situations (9) which allows for rapid exchange of information during a crisis situation.
International organizations can serve as neutral fora for risk assessment and the development of appropriate risk management strategies and risk communication messages for national or international dissemination.
Crisis Situations: National Responses
National governments need to be prepared to rapidly disseminate accurate information to the mass media and the public when a food safety crisis arises. Essential steps in preparing for such a crisis include: identifying reliable sources of information and expert advice; arranging an administrative organization to handle communications during a crisis; and developing staff skills in dealing with the media and the public.
A national government might consider opening a Food Safety Information Office which can serve as a crisis centre if needed, while serving as an information centre to receive routine inquiries from consumers about the safety of foods. Food control authorities may also consider developing a home page on the Internet World-Wide Web to provide information on food and food safety including questions and answers about issues of common concern.
Crisis Situations: Industry Responses
When a crisis is emerging or has emerged, the involved industry should assure that the public authorities are fully informed about the potential cause and extent of the problem, and the anticipated effectiveness of any recall of food products already on the market. In dealing with the public during a crisis, consumer safety comes first and company actions and communications should reflect this. The following policies and actions have proven to be effective:
Crisis Situations: Local Responses
The first lines of contact in a crisis are usually the local officials. It is critical that they communicate conditions to the appropriate authority quickly so a crisis can be contained and appropriately managed.
Risk communication about food safety within the risk analysis process is carried out on an ongoing basis from the local through the international levels. While many of the strategies presented above also apply in the risk analysis process, there are additional considerations that can help frame those risk communication strategies that are part of risk analysis.
Specific Guidelines: International Considerations
Communication can be considered at two levels in the international context. The first level involves international organizations like FAO and WHO, and intergovernmental organizations like Codex. The second level involves national governments on bi-lateral and multi-lateral bases. At both levels, effective internal and external risk communication requires development and documentation of a comprehensive risk analysis policy. Matters of concern include:
In regard to the latter point, a joint FAO/WHO expert committee for food microbiological hazards (as is now the case for food additives, veterinary drug residues, pesticide residues and other food contaminants) would provide internationally recognized microbiological risk assessments for member governments and for Codex. The Consultation was aware that at its 22nd Session, the CAC recognized this problem and requested FAO and WHO to convene an international expert advisory body similar to JECFA and JMPR, to specifically address microbiological risk assessment in food.
Advice and assistance from international organizations may be sought when local authorities wish additional technical information and support. This may lead to specific international development projects. In such situations it would be necessary to maintain continuity in the composition of national counterpart staff. Co-ordination within such projects is essential.
Specific Guidelines: National Considerations
National Codex Co-ordinating Committees should have responsibility and appropriate support to communicate issues involving risk to consumers, local food industry and those national authorities involved in risk analysis.
International organizations like WHO and FAO have, over the years, developed documentation related to risk assessment and management. National organizations should make use of this information. National organizations should integrate food safety into primary health care for the public. This should penetrate down to the local marketplace.
It was previously suggested that national governments consider opening a Food Safety Information Office to address routine food safety inquiries as well as serving as a crisis centre when needed. Governments may wish to consider establishing a Food Safety Council comprised of microbiologists, physicians and toxicologists and other scientists with appropriate public health and food control expertise, as well as representatives of consumer organizations and industry, to evaluate and advise government officials regarding food safety. The Council's deliberations and recommendations could be made available to the public through official bulletins or administrative notices as well as through the mass media. It could also provide input for national delegations to Codex meetings.
Specific Guidelines: Industry Considerations
Industry should be more proactive and establish or strongly support non-profit information centres to provide science-based information on food safety and nutrition to the public, educators, health professionals, government officials and the media.
If consumer food handling, storage, or other practices can assist in controlling a food-borne illness or disease outbreak, then the industry should communicate clearly what actions the consumers should take. This communication should be based on a realistic estimate of the level of knowledge of the consumers. Safe handling, preparation and storage instructions should be presented in clear and unambiguous language, using graphics and pictograms when and where appropriate.
Judicious use of labelling holds promise as a risk management/risk communication strategy but its effectiveness needs further study. Labelling has been extensively used to convey certain types of information to the consumer, e.g., product composition, nutrition, weights and measures, and warnings on certain health issues. Labelling should not be used as a substitute for consumer education. In assessing the use of food labels in risk communication, it is essential that the public's concerns be identified and addressed.
Specific Guidelines: Local Considerations
Experience has shown that local government, being closer to the local population, is often more likely to be regarded as a trustworthy and credible source of risk information. Therefore local officials should be involved as key participants in ongoing risk communication activities.
Local bodies should be encouraged to integrate food safety information into primary health care which should also include key risk communication messages using appropriate delivery systems (e.g. mass media, street plays, posters, leaflets, video, etc.).
Risk communication efforts and programmes need to be evaluated both regularly and systematically to determine their effectiveness and to provide for change where needed. Communication aims and objectives need to be clearly stated if an evaluation is to be effective. This could include the proportion of at-risk population to be reached, adoption of appropriate risk reduction practices, and the extent of resolution of the crisis. It is important to learn from both positive and negative risk communication experiences, in order to adjust and improve ongoing communication activities. Only through systematic evaluations, which are performed throughout the communication process, can that process be strengthened.