Setting the Record Straight on Food Safety

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Fad diets and iffy scientific studies occupy so much of the dialogue around food and nutrition issues that it can be easy to lose sight of the things that really count the most—the ones that are truly matters of life and death.

Did you know that about 3,000 Americans die every year from foodborne illnesses? More tragic than the deaths themselves is the realization that they can be prevented, usually just with safe food-handling practices.

Reaching consumers with messages relating to food safety behaviors is a big part of the mission of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, which hosts the annual Consumer Food Safety Education Conference (CFSEC). I took part in a CFSEC panel discussion, moderated by the IFIC Foundation’s Tony Flood, on “Consumer Confusion: The Keys to Motivate Positive Food Safety Behavior Change.”

The IFIC Foundation’s annual Food and Health Survey noted a steady decline in consumers’ confidence in the safety of the food supply, falling from 78 percent in 2012 to 61 percent in 2015. However, that number significantly increased in 2016 to 66 percent.

An Influential Media

While it’s difficult to pin those trends on any single factor, our survey data have shown that negative media coverage has a lot of sway over our attitudes about food. At least some of the uptick last year in consumer confidence might be attributed to an election year with unprecedented levels of interest that crowded out media coverage of so many other issues.

Perhaps related, the increase in consumer confidence also correlated with the declining influence of some of the most prominent voices in food conversations—particularly those whose stock in trade is fear and sensational claims. Dr. Oz, who has come under intense media and government criticism in recent years, has seen his TV audience decline from about 3.8 million viewers in 2012 to 1.5 million in 2016.

Vani Hari, aka the “Food Babe,” published a book that provoked an unusually hostile reception among some media outlets. It’s likely no coincidence that Google Trends, which is a rough gauge of interest in a person or topic, showed that Food Babe’s influence fell more than half between May 2015 and the end of 2016, despite a spike during her book’s publicity tour.

Spreading Your Own Message

We discussed the power of social media, especially Facebook, in reaching consumers and helping bring about behavior change. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of all Americans are Facebook users. An astounding 44 percent of all Americans get their news from Facebook.

One key to reaching consumers is to know your audiences and adapt accordingly. For instance, the IFIC Foundation has drilled down into its data to discern key differences between Millennials and Baby Boomers.

Communicators also must have plans and strategies to reach consumers before crises, such as food recalls, arise. The IFIC Foundation, along with many other communications organizations, maintains a “content calendar” to ensure a steady flow of reliable information. Front and center in our strategy is the power of visuals such as infographics. Studies have shown that social media posts are far more likely to be seen and read if accompanied by an image.

Best practices also include adopting an accessible tone and personality; finding like-minded communities, such as Facebook pages, and engaging with them; and constantly reviewing and revising communications approaches, using tools such as Google Analytics.

Also speaking on our CFSEC panel was Dr. Bob Gravani, a food science expert who is also chairman of the IFIC Foundation Board of Trustees, and Michéle Samarya-Timm with the Somerset County Department of Health in New Jersey.