How to communicate successfully regarding food safety risks
Getting people’s attention can be difficult. So, what can you do to get a message across to your organisation? Here are five tips that are worth knowing when communicating about food safety risks.
Food safety risks encompass many different things, from advice preventing food poisoning, via information about foodborne disease outbreaks and the use of antibiotics in livestock, to food scandals.
“What usually happens when communicating about food safety risks is that experts get the job of conveying the message to consumers. These groups often talk past one another, and there are significant differences in how they think about the risks being discussed. Therefore, misunderstandings can easily occur and the message is not understood by consumers in the way that was intended”, says Øydis Ueland, senior scientist at Nofima. She has completed a literature review concerning this challenge.
1. Focus on the consumers and get to know their needs
Risk communication must be based on consumers’ concerns, risk perception, needs and what motivates them, not on experts’ technological reasoning.
What worries consumers the most is the seriousness of a food safety risk in relation to themselves, how close it is to them or their loved ones, and if they feel that they have knowledge about or control of the situation.
This requires solid knowledge of the target group. Groups that are particularly susceptible to food poisoning, such as elderly or people with certain health conditions, must receive the information in such a way that they understand it and feel that it concerns them.
2. Be relevant, and remember that own experience is just as important as demographic affiliation
Personal experiences, such as getting sick from consuming high risk foods or knowing others who have been ill because of food poisoning, determine to a large extent whether consumers take the information seriously. One has to take this into consideration when communicating about food safety risks. The information must be relevant to the specific consumers one wishes to reach.
“It is worthwhile to spend time finding and formulating the exact problems and questions that are relevant to consumers and the circumstances in which they live. It helps to make information relevant and therefore interesting to consumers, and it also increases the likelihood that you can change behaviour if required”, says Øydis Ueland.
Ueland refers to an example involving an older lady who became ill after eating gravlax. When she was advised that elderly people should avoid eating fish that isn’t heat-treated, she changed her eating habits.
3. Find arguments that grab people’s attention
It is no easy task to get consumers to change the way they prepare or consume food.
“Although consumers are aware of the risks associated with eating rare hamburgers, for example, they rarely see any reason to change their own habits. It might be due to the fact that they do not believe that they themselves will become ill, that others who are held in high regard by consumers, such as chefs, say that it is okay, or that changing behaviour conflicts with other factors that are important to consumers, such as taste”, explains Øydis Ueland.
It must be the consumers’ wish to change that forms the basis for communication, and the arguments one uses must be important to them. Regarding consumers who are keen to save money, for example, it may be more relevant to first use arguments such as leftover food keeps longer if it is refrigerated quickly, before giving additional information that this also makes food safer and minimises the risk of food poisoning.
4. Tell stories
Presenting information in the form of stories is more effective than simply providing facts and statistics. Avoid complicated words and technical jargon.
One can use examples of things that have actually happened to describe what people should do.
“Many people always make sure to have clean chopping boards and a clean knife when preparing chicken, and they are careful not to mix raw meat with meat that is already cooked. They ensure that the food is safe to eat.”
“Many people avoid keeping and preparing vegetables and raw meat in the same place to ensure that the food is safe to eat. In addition, they don’t use the same knife without washing it in hot, soapy water.”
5. Choose the right channel
Choosing the right dissemination channel affects how the information is received, and the choice of channel must be made in relation to where the relevant target groups look for their information. Find an information channel that the specific consumer group you wish to reach feels safe and familiar with.
The type of channels used has changed over the years. From books, via TV, radio and newspapers to the Internet and social media. Most of today’s consumers gain knowledge by using search engines and social media, so web-based information channels should be the main source of information in most situations.
“It is worth noting that risk-related messages presented in mainstream mass media channels are often inadequate because good practical advice is omitted. News stories usually focus on matters of life and death, rather than providing advice that can reduce risk”, concludes Øydis Ueland.