Communicating food safety is tricky

Nicole Arnold, MS student at N.C. State University writes:

I never knew that I sounded like a twelve year old until I recorded myself for a video competition to take part in IFT’s first inaugural Food Communicator’s Workshop. A few snowflakes in North Carolina had shut things down; I couldn’t use a university studio so I was forced to record myself in my bedroom via YouTube.IMG_5919


Maybe it was because I boasted of being part of the behind the scenes of barfblog (and mentioned 40,000 subscribers) or because nobody else could bear the discomfort of recording themselves, but they chose me.

Sponsored by CanolaInfo, the IFT workshop was created to prepare and encourage students and young professionals to communicate food science information and issues through various channels. As a group, we dissected multiple media platforms, specifically the infamous Food Babe’s attack on canola oil.  The group leaders asked:

How would we respond?

What would we say if we chose to say anything at all?

What type of social media platforms would we use?

During a mock print interview, I grabbed a slip of paper out of a bowl with the words ‘artificial colors’ on it. I know a little bit more about that topic but am less- familiar with GMOs and preservatives (which others received).

With only a minute to look over the content, the interviewer asked me ‘why artificial colors are added to foods when scientific literature links it to cancer?’

I made a rookie mistake and used the oft-used phrase that the dose that makes the poison. The mock reporter’s eyes lit up.

Poison. I had said it.

An actual reporter could take that statement and run with it, indicating that my statement equated colors to poisons.

I should have talked about how safety reviews are conducted on artificial coloring and that while there are no certainties or guarantees in safety, regulators assess risk by calculating exposure and the amounts needed to cause problems. Many studies are based on mouse models – which may or may not be all that transferable to humans.  Based on the current available science, the U.S. FDA and other public health-protecting bodies throughout the world have deemed certain artificial colors as low risk.

It’s tricky, but as food communicators, our messages should be clear, concise and explain the uncertainties of the science. And shouldn’t use clichés.

Nicole Arnold is a MS student in Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, a barfblog news team member, and is a vegetarian studying mechanically tenderized beef safety.

Here’s a video submission from Ohio State’s John Frelka.

How to win friends and influence people? NZ burger chef loses it after foodborne illness accusation

The social media storm began when a woman sent a private Facebook message to Ekim Burgers, saying that she loved the cafe’s food but her son had spent the night vomiting after eating there.“Firstly, this is not a complaint,” the woman began. “[The burger] is the only thing he ate differently from us that day so we assume it was the burger. Just wanted you to be aware. We thought the burgers were fantastic and know it was probably a one-off.”

And it probably wasn’t the burger (that would take 2-4 days, unless it was norovirus).

But the response from the chef is an instructive lesson in what not to do when chatting with customers.

On Wednesday, owner Mike Duffy posted a screengrab of the private message from the Wellington woman, saying “he wanted to get in first.”

When people complained he was breaching her privacy, he posted on Thursday the rant against his customers.

“Almost 20 years in this f—ing industry and never had a person who ate what I cook get sick from it,” he wrote on Ekim Burger’s Facebook page.

No evidence to prove that.

“Plenty of pissed up office jocks pulling the ‘i got food poisoning’ call after going home way to [sic] drunk from a staff Christmas party with someone who they shouldn’t have.

“Loads of middle class no idea house wives completely out of their league complaining that their wine glass should have more in it.

“Dozens of to [sic] drunk to drive but gonna anyway cos they can lawyer’s with no regard for the position they put you in as the license holder by driving home.

“100000s of eggs on Sunday mornings when no one, least of all the other staff wants to hear some little shit kid banging his or her fork on the wooden table only to be released from its chair to f— up the morning of other diners. So it’s dimwitted parents can talk about what shit the service is even though they’d never tip no matter how good it was.”

Unapologetic, Duffy said the rant was inspired by what he calls a creeping culture of rudeness and entitlement among hospitality patrons, who he said have a responsibility to behave well in restaurants, cafes and bars.

“It’s common courtesy and it’s not common anymore,” he explained.

Food Safety Talk 64: The One With Doug

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University. Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.  They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using

In a special episode recorded back before Ben went on summer hiatus, the guys invite Doug Powell on for a chat.  According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong), Dr. Douglas Powell was raised in Brantford, Ontario (that’s in Canada). Doug describes himself as a former professor of food safety and the publisher of He is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey.

These days Doug is been thinking a lot about soul, and given the Venn diagram of their intersecting musical tastes this leads to a discussion of Mr. Soul and a place where even Richard Nixon has got soul. Any discussion of music and soul leads to a mention of the classic Soul Man, which Don knows from the Blues Brothers movie, and Doug knows from the original version by Sam and Dave. Doug is thinking about soul because of his monthly writing gig for the Texas A&M Center for food safety. The piece he was ruminating on during the call led to a post called “It’s Gotta Have Soul” where his central thesis is that most people talking about food safety lack relevance; they lack soul, and fail to resonate.

After the guys bid Doug good night, the discussion turns to managing graduate students, task tracking software like OmniFocus, distracting diversions like Flappy Bird, managing references using Sente or Mendeley and a brief look forward to this special events which are coming, or rather were coming, at the IAFP annual meeting.

Food safety passion and soul

I spent about 30 minutes chatting with a mom I known whose husband knows who the Tragically Hip are, while grocery shopping Monday.

powell_soli_juneWe’ve chatted before.

Somehow, our chat got into me coaching Sorenne in hockey (the ice kind).

I find I’m either becoming nostalgic or reigniting my passion.

But I sure can talk a lot.

And skate.

Food safety crisis communication? Crisis? What Crisis? There is no crisis, it should be day-in-day-out,

But whatever you do, it’s gotta have soul.

Communication, cross-contamination, careful: wise words, but they lack soul.

The songs that move you, the art, the words, it speaks to your soul.

My friend Russ, aged 63, from Manhattan (Kansas) died recently while scuba diving with his wife in the Bahamas. My favorite memory is watching him dance to Sympathy for the Devil during the annual fish fry he hosted every Labor Day weekend in Manhattan, Kansas for about 300 people.

The dude had soul.

Most people talking about food safety lack relevance; they lack soul, and fail to resonate.

Since 1998, American consumers have been told to FightBac, to fight the dangerous bacteria and virus and parasites found in a variety of foods, by cooking, cleaning, chilling and separating their food. Solid advice, but not compelling.

crisis-what-crisisFresh fruits and vegetables are good for us; we should eat more. Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most significant source of foodborne illness today in North America. Because fresh produce is just that – fresh, and not cooked — anything that comes into contact is a possible source of contamination. Every mouthful of fresh produce is an act of faith — especially faith in the growers — because once that E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella gets on, or inside, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts or melons, it is exceedingly difficult to remove.

In 2004, Salmonella-contaminated Roma tomatoes used in prepared sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores throughout Pennsylvania sickened over 400 consumers. The FightBac people told the public that, “In all cases, the first line of defense to reduce risk of contracting foodborne illness is to cook, clean, chill and separate.”
 Consumers were being told that when they stop by a convenience store and grab a ready-made sandwich, they should take it apart, grab the tomato slice, wash it, and reassemble the sandwich. Which would have done nothing to remove the Salmonella inside the tomatoes.

Ten years later, and the FightBac message still lacks soul.

I don’t see gender. I got five daughters, and when we stopped at the McDonald’s on the way home from the beach the other weekend, the server said, do you want a boy toy or a girl toy with that happy meal, I said, I don’t care. It shoudn’t matter.

My girls play hockey.

But according to the FightBac folks, the numbers of men who report shopping and cooking are on the rise.

My father’s been doing the shopping and cooking for decades. So have I. So have a number of my brofriends.

These self-reported surveys mean nothing, are so out of touch with what I see in grocery stores, and are soulless.

The American Meat Institute proclaimed it was going to the grass roots to share the facts about meat and poultry.

“The Communicators Advocating Meat and Poultry or CAMP program is designed to harness the energies of a growing number of individuals within the industry and the field of meat science who are committed to sharing the facts about the products that the industry produces and the measures they take to ensure they are safe, wholesome, nutritious and humane.”


When a band says it’s going back to its roots, they’ve lost it.

A university student that helps with food safety news asked if such groups would be mad if I questioned their integrity.

It’s an indictment of the university system that she even asked that question, so accustomed have they become to Noam-Chomsky-esq self-censorship. Health inspectors e-mail me from around the world on a regular basis, saying they are fearful for their jobs if they speak out about what they see.

Or as Neil Young sang:

I am a lonely visitor.

I came too late to cause a stir,

Though I campaigned all my life

towards that goal.

I hardly slept the night you wept

Our secret’s safe and still well kept

Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.

Even Richard Nixon has got


Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

Is there a better trifecta of rock music than Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, and Sticky Fingers?

Does food safety risk analysis have a public hope? How politics make us stupid

I have no time for scientists who bitch behind closed doors about how they’re misunderstood by the public.

As Thomas Jefferson famously stated, which I always use to introduce my risk analysis course, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.”

communicationI’m not a fan of education, but I am a fan of compelling, current, credible information.

Ezra Klein writes about the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, theb thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.

But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.

This isn’t cutting-edge. This has been known for at least 50 years.

I heard the same thing about genetically engineered foods in the early 1990s (I’m old) and tried to tell the corporations, facts are not your answer: it’s compassion, stories.

That worked out well (that’s sarcasm).

Klein writes that in April and May of 2013, Yale Law professor Dan Kahan — working with co-authors Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic — set out to test a question that continuously puzzles scientists: why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates? For instance, why doesn’t the mounting proof that climate change is a real threat persuade more skeptics?

The leading theory, Kahan and his coauthors wrote, is the Science Comprehension Thesis, which says the problem is that the public doesn’t know enough about science to judge the debate. It’s a version of the More Information Hypothesis: a smarter, better educated citizenry wouldn’t have all these problems reading the science and accepting its clear conclusion on climate change.

That’s a new-fangled version of the needle theory – a willing public waiting to ingest science.

Doesn’t work like that.

Kahan goes on to say that the science community has a crappy communications team. Actually, scratch that: Kahan doesn’t think they have any communications team at all.”

Easy to throw darts from the outside. My team can tell you what you need to know about food safety science communication.



Message and medium; bye-bye PR hacks; social media as megaphone to pressure food industry

Marshall McLuhan famously said in 1967, “The medium is the message” and got to do a walk-on in the movie, Annie Hall, where he told some pompous professor that he doesn’t understand his theories at all and is not qualified to teach.


With food safety recalls today, it’s the medium and the message, if you want to get Marshall-McLuhan-in-Annie-Hall-300x225people’s attention.

Stephanie Strom of the NY Times recreates those themes for modern audiences (I’m old).

Matthew Egol, a partner at Booz & Company, a consulting firm, said companies were approaching the negative feedback they get with new tools that help them assess the risks posed by consumer criticism.

“Instead of relying on a P.R. firm, you have analytical tools to quantify how big an issue it is and how rapidly it’s spreading and how influential the people hollering are,” he said. “Then you can make a decision about how to respond. It happens much more quickly.”


How is a rare burger defined? Why there’s no such thing as simple food safety advice

The UK Food Standards Agency is full of food safety contradictions: cook meat until it is piping hot; wash watercress to avoid E. coli; and, pink steaks are safe.

Back in August, according to the Daily Mail, district judge Elizabeth Roscoe ruled that London-based Davey’s could continue to serve tenderizingPagerare beefburgers, rejecting claims they were a health risk.

“There is a balance to be struck between ensuring the safety of the public and allowing them the freedom of choice that they would wish and have a right to expect.”

The council wanted Davy’s beef supplier to sear and shave the outside of whole cuts of meat to remove any harmful bugs.

Davy’s argued that its suppliers could be trusted to supply beef that could be safely eaten.

But Westminster council’s food safety chief James Armitage, “We are not saying burgers should not be eaten rare  or medium – merely that they should be prepared in a way that makes them as safe as practicably possible.”

What are those controls?

Before the judge’s ruling, the Daily Mail published a bit about how FSA was going to advise that all meat be cooked until no pink remained.

Color is a lousy indicator.

Stephen Humphreys, director of communications at FSA, explained, “We have issued no guidance that would prevent steaks being served rare, we have no plans to do so and why would we?

Steak is safe to eat ‘rare’. Whole cuts of beef or lamb, steaks, cutlets and joints only have germs on the outside, so as long as the outside is cooked any potentially harmful germs that could cause food poisoning will be killed.”

Not quite.

Steaks that have been needle tenderized have the albeit-low potential for pathogens to be entered into the meat, and requiring a higher cooking temperature.

Food safety advice is never simple.

Bureaucrat (non) action 2: safest food in the world, EU edition

Come on down, John Dalli, you’re the latest winner in the we-have-the-safest-food-in-the-world sweepstakes.

Dalli, the commissioner in charge of health and consumer policy, told,

"European consumers enjoy the highest food safety standards in the world. The EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed is a key tool as it allows risks to be identified and removed from the European market.”

In the actual report, Dalli writes RASFF has ensured food safety by averting or mitigating many safety risks “by triggering a rapid reaction when a food safety risk is detected” and that that the RASFF system reinforces consumer confidence in the food and feed safety system.

More faith-based food safety.

Recall fatigue redux: does social media help or hinder?

In July 2007, Robert Brackett, then director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said during the Castleberry canned chili sauce botulism outbreak consumers may be suffering "recall fatigue," given the rash of recalls the past year for spinach, carrot juice, lettuce, peanut butter, pet food and other products. "That’s a real phenomenon. If people aren’t getting sick or their family isn’t, they think ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me.’"

I said that public communications about such undertakings must be rapid, reliable, repeated and relevant, and that the produce outbreaks of 2006 marked significant changes in how stories were being told on Internet-based networking like YouTube, wikipedia, and blogs. Producers, processors, retailers and regulators of agricultural commodities not only need to be seen — and actually — responding to food safety issues in conventional media, they must now pay particular attention to the myriad of Internet-based social networking sites that allow individuals to act as their own media outlet. Further, proactive producers, regulators and others in the farm-to-fork food safety system will become comfortable with the directness — and especially the speed — of new Internet-based media.

In 2010, the Washington Post reported that government regulators, retailers, manufacturers and consumer experts were concerned that recall notices have become so frequent across a range of goods — foods, consumer products, cars — that the public is suffering from "recall fatigue."

Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco, was quoted as saying in 2010 that, "The national recall system that’s in place now just doesn’t work. We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you keep shouting at the wind — ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ — people literally become immune to the message."

Today, USA Today has a story about recall fatigue.

Consumers last year were deluged with 2,363 recalls, or about 6.5 recalls each day, covering consumer products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and food, according to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The recalls announced mark a nearly 14 percent increase from 2,081 in 2010 and compare with about 1,460 in 2007.

Christopher Doering writes that the increase is the result of a combination of greater oversight by regulators, better testing procedures and the use of social media where consumers can quickly point out and discuss problems with other people.

Increasingly, retailers and government agencies are expanding the methods they use to communicate with the public — from social-media technologies such as Twitter and Facebook to more traditional methods such as phone calls and postings within their stores. But the same methods that prove successful in reaching one customer could just as easily be ignored by another.

"We don’t feel that our members are getting bombarded but certainly the general public is and sooner or later you don’t know what to believe," said Craig Wilson, vice president for quality assurance and food safety at the warehouse giant Costco.

The 602-store warehouse chain uses data supplied from its estimated 60 million members and notifies them within 24 hours if they’ve purchased a recalled item. It then follows up with a letter. The result is that customers return about 90% of recently recalled products and, in the case of major recalls such as when a food product could cause serious health problems or death, Costco gets "the majority of everything that was sold back."

But Wilson says the national recall system "doesn’t work as designed" and that consumers and retailers alike would benefit from a single, uniform network. He says the CPSC, USDA and FDA each have a different recall system with unique requirements, making it more difficult for companies like his to make sure they are complying with the rules.

At Rochester, New York-based Wegmans, the grocery chain has a detailed recall plan that can require hundreds of people to carry out. The 81-store East Coast chain follows a recall protocol increasingly common among retailers: posting recall information on its web page and within stores for customers, notifying its followers using social media tools and, when possible, calling individuals who may have used a store card for the purchase.

Businesses can ease the burden of a recall on their reputation and bottom line by being honest and upfront with their customers and crafting a response plan before any recall occurs that outlines what they will do with the public, media and regulators, industry watchers say.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack downplayed the number of recalls that are announced considering the number of products that are produced, items that are sold and meals consumed each day.

"I think people want to know and need to know and have a right to know if there is a problem with a particular product," said Vilsack. "We’re going to look at ways in which we (communicate) and constantly improve how we communicate but we’re not going to stop communicating."

Add to list of things not to say ‘We’re safest place in town to eat’ after outbreak; 75 reports of illness from Ribeye’s Steakhouse in NC

The Nash County Health Department is investigating a possible foodborne illness outbreak in Nash County after 75 people reported becoming ill after eating at Ribeye’s Steakhouse in Nashville last week.

Two people were hospitalized after eating there and have been released, but it has not been confirmed whether their illnesses were associated with eating at the restaurant, said health department spokeswoman Amy Belflower Thomas.

The Rocky Mount Telegram reports she could not say what food dish at the restaurant, if any, might have caused the illnesses.

“Seventy-five people have called us and said they were sick or ate with someone who was sick, and gave me their names,” Thomas said. “It’s not like we’ve gone out and asked people to call us.”

Janice Manning, an owner of Ribeye’s Restaurant, said patrons can feel confident the food served is safe to eat.

“I just spoke to the health department recently,” she said. “I’ve not heard that anything was confirmed. They are working on it.”

She said the restaurant has been sanitized and all of the food that was there when the complaints were filed has been thrown out.

“We are probably the safest place in town (to eat),” Manning said.

She noted the restaurant has had consistently high grades from the health department on its sanitation report card.