An article published in the March issue of the Journal of Environmental Health, “Going Public: Early Disclosure of Food Risks for the Benefit of Public Health,” aims to spark awareness about the importance of notifying the public about food risks, when to disseminate such information, and how to go about doing it, says Douglas Powell, PhD, a co-author of the paper who is a former professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.
Proponents of having health agencies reveal potential food risks early on say that having information can help consumers make safer choices—such as avoiding a restaurant or a specific type of food, says Benjamin Chapman, PhD, a co-author of the article and associate professor and food safety specialist, Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C. In addition, without such information, industry partners such as restaurants, grocery stores, and processors may not be able to make good decisions regarding purchasing ingredients and supplies.
On the other hand, an agency may not want to publicize information until epidemiological or microbiological testing confirms the source of foodborne risk. “Some argue that if you provide information too early, and you end up being wrong, you could harm an industry or business,” Dr. Chapman says.
Given this, the article’s authors make the case that internal guidance is needed regarding what should trigger an institution to share information and what they should share specifically. “Often, agencies look at a situation on a case by case basis, which is difficult when you don’t have a written plan in place on how to do things,” Dr. Chapman says. “If you have a plan, you can learn from past mistakes and refine it. Ultimately, you will create a more effective public health communication system.”
Dr. Powell, who publishes barfblog.com and currently resides in Brisbane, Australia, points out that outbreaks can be challenging situations, particularly because information constantly changes and getting detailed information can be difficult. Oftentimes, agencies insist that companies confirm risks through testing. But for some products, that might not be possible because the affected commodity may have already been consumed and disappeared. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “The question is, at what point does sufficient information exist to go public?”
The paper includes a set of questions that can guide an agency with decision making. They include evaluating risks and potential hazards, determining whom it would affect, if there are vulnerable populations, whether or not it is a new hazard, how information will be shared and in what formats, and with whom they will share it, says Dr. Chapman, another publisher of barfblog.com.
The aim is to help an agency tackle the topics of uncertainty, given the uncertain nature of any foodborne illness. “Our suggestions are based on knowledge we already have,” Dr. Chapman says.
Many agencies, especially at the state and local levels, aren’t risk communication folks—they are public health individuals. “Having a plan and compilation of best practices for communication would help those individuals have a better dialogue,” Dr. Chapman concludes. “The more we talk about public health issues in an open way and about how we make decisions, the better consumers and industry partners can make more informed decisions.”