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October 19, 2006

Food safety is an important part of a balanced diet – COMMENT

Many parents believe that kids would rather eat marbles than spinach. Indeed, some may wonder which makes the riskier meal. Considering the recent cases of E. coli and botulism, parents are suspicious about the safety of the food supply. Today’s food distribution system places the burden of safety on the shoulders of individual consumers, but Sylvain Charlebois argues that they need more support from the food industry.

Many parents believe that kids would rather eat marbles than spinach. Indeed, some may wonder which makes the riskier meal. Considering the recent cases of E. coli and botulism, parents are suspicious about the safety of the food supply. Today’s food distribution system places the burden of safety on the shoulders of individual consumers, but Sylvain Charlebois argues that they need more support from the food industry.


The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) clarified that the latest recall of lettuce after irrigation water tested positive for E. coli was only a preventive move. However, hardly a few days later, botulism cases hit in Canada which left two Ontarians paralysed after drinking carrot juice. Canadian consumers have good reason to question the safety of their fruits and vegetables, and many wonder why food safety alerts issued by the CFIA seem more frequent.


Many decades ago, food supply depended on regional production and was largely decentralised, which tended to minimise and contain food-based epidemics. Today, food production is more centralised and this has created favourable conditions for the dissemination of bacteria and viruses. To cope with these risks, the food industry has implemented efficient certification programmes like HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point). HACCP requires food companies to analyse production processes intelligently, anticipate safety hazards at appropriate critical points, and establish effective prevention controls and standards. The concepts underlying HACCP are simple and can be highly effective when used correctly.


Under the watchful eye of programmes such as HACCP, organisations involved in every stage of food distribution must take responsibility for food safety. But this sharing of responsibility also allows for the sharing of blame. Producers blame manufacturers, manufacturers blame distributors, and so forth. But since it is well known that the mishandling of food in consumers’ kitchens is a leading cause of these occurrences, blame tends to fall on the consumer. For instance, in the following hours after two consumers were hospitalised due to botulism, American manufacturers overtly blamed consumers who drank the contaminated carrot juice. This was not the finest strategic response to a food safety situation.


Obviously, no organisation involved with the food industry wants consumers to suffer or die from food borne illnesses. Nevertheless, outbreaks of food borne illness have become more costly in recent years due to the scope of modern food distribution systems. One single recall can easily cost over C$50m (US$43.9m) and involve thousands of organisations. Even though the food industry has made progress in managing risks in recent years with HACCP, it is clear that the industry does not sufficiently recognise the virtues of risk communication.


Risk communication and food safety are closely connected. For many consumers, decision-making at the food counter is not based on facts. It is a story that begins and ends with their empathy for and trust in the producers, the authorities and the manufacturers within the food industry. And this trust is again related to the different organisations’ willingness and ability to practice risk communication. Within the scientific framework of risk analysis, risk communication has in recent years been acknowledged as playing an important, and often decisive, part in the outcome or effect of risk assessment and risk management on public opinion and behaviour. For example, the CFIA astutely used risk communication in the 2003 BSE outbreak, and by doing so achieved beneficial long-term results. The food industry needs to learn from its mistakes to establish a better relationship with consumers.


With every food safety predicament, the food industry needs to understand its audience, share responsibility and differentiate between science and value judgements for consumers. This is not an effortless task for food industry pundits since differences in perceptions, differences in receptivity, consumer misunderstanding about the scientific process, and the role of the media are hindrances to the intricate process of risk communication.


We are living in the age of risks. Through large-scale bulletins in the media, we have learned about food scandals that threaten both our health and our environment. Consumers are left confused about whom they should trust, and whether industrialised production of produce can be regarded as ethically defensible in this day and age. The likelihood of becoming sick from the next meal has probably never been less than it is today. Nonetheless, the odds are one in four that any given consumer will get sick this year from contaminated foods.


At the same time, consumers know less than ever about the long-term consequences of today’s food production. We are gradually moving from an industrialised society to a society where perceptions are king. Food manufacturers, processors, distributors and retailers alike need to adapt. Consumers need to understand that while producing safe food is not an impossible task, complex food distribution systems and food imports that may not be HACCP-certified make production more multifarious. A robust risk communication strategy can lead to better public education about food safety.


Ultimately, the food industry can no longer rely on the CFIA to communicate inherent risks that exist in food consumption. When it comes to food safety, consumers currently bear all the health risks. The situation was different in the past, when regulatory authorities took care of the risks and kept dangerous foods out of the country. More and more, consumers are supplied with added value product, which can potentially kill. The reflexive burden is placed upon the shoulders of individual consumers, and the food industry must recognise that. Even if food products are further labelled and food safety measures and practices are increasingly rigorous, consumers still need an enhanced understanding of our food systems. To maintain the delicate trust that Canadian consumers have enjoyed with the food industry for decades, it is time for the food industry to establish grounds for a meaningful rapport with consumers. Food safety is an important part of a balanced diet.


Sylvain Charlebois is assistant professor in marketing of the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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