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She’s discussing a recent study she—along with Dr. Elizabeth Whitworth and Amy Woodward—published in the British Food Journal in January developing a new comprehensive categorization for food scares.
As the food market becomes increasingly global, products emerge from complex sourcing chains that limit both traceability and accountability—but increase the frequency with which the public faces threats to food safety.
Prof. Druckman and her colleagues discovered that no comprehensive categorization of food scares had previously existed; so, working with industry specialists, they developed one. This new system classifies food scares according to both their physical manifestations (chemical/physical or biological contamination) and their origins (deliberate deception and/or transparency/awareness issues).
The authors argue their system will enable a more strategic and effective response to food scares in the present while streamlining prevention of scares in the future.
“For example,” says Dr. Druckman, “a transparency/awareness issue will be dealt with by scrutinizing what the needs of the consumer are, in what way they are not being met adequately, and how best to address this shortcoming. In contrast, in the case of a food scare that is motivated by deception, a criminal offense may have taken place, therefore the police may be involved. In both cases, it will be important to learn from the particular food scare in question and put steps in place to prevent future similar occurrences. But in the case of deception, understanding motives will be key to success in preventing future such events.”
Coauthor Dr. Whitworth of RSK ADAS, adds, “The salient feature of the new categorization is that it distinguishes between scares caused by wilful deception [such as terrorism, species substitution, or fraud] and those that are caused by transparency and awareness issues [such as allergens, biological contaminants, hormones/antibiotics].”
One major result of the study was the inadequacy of current definitions of the term “food scare,” which researchers discovered did not consider “consumers’ lack of trust in the food chain.” This issue in particular is significant in the U.K. following the 2013 horse meat scandal.
“With a better definition that encompasses all types of food scares, there is less chance of missing out on a single type of food scare,” says Dr. Druckman. “The term ‘food scare’ is embedded into the food industry and the public’s terminology, and the words describe ‘exactly what it says on the tin!’ However, the important point is that the term should describe all types of food scares, but our research did not find a definition that incorporated all the types that have occurred in recent years.”
To that end, her team developed and introduced the following definition, which takes into account consumer response in purchasing: “A food scare is the response to a food incident (real or perceived) that causes a sudden disruption to the food supply chain and to food consumption patterns.”
Dr. Druckman explains, “The new definition will help avoid misunderstanding the differences between a food incident (which may not have the hype or reduction in sales) and a food scare. Thus the new definition not only is inclusive of all types of food scares but also puts boundaries in place for whether an event should be scaled up to a food scare or should remain a food incident.”
The bottom line, Dr. Druckman says, is that the new set of categorizations allow food producers and regulators to broadly classify scares in a way that can tackle similar risks together.
“This will enable them to create specific strategies to deal with groups of incidents,” she says. “If there is a new type of food scare, then by matching it to a group they can use these risk management documents for the basis of dealing with the current problem.”