Unclear communication hurting US food agency credibility - study

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fsis Escherichia coli

The credibility of the US food inspection watchdog is being undermined by flaws in the way it communicates – by creating unrealistic expectations among consumers which it cannot fulfill, experts have said.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) needs to explain more clearly the way it operates, as well as the limits on the scope of its work if it wants to boost its standing among the public, said Kansas State University researchers Charles Dodd, a doctoral student, and Doug Powell, associate professor of food safety. The pair came to their conclusion after examining the way the agency communicates risk of E.coli 0157:H7​ in ground beef through its recall notices, publications and web pages.

Unrealistic expectations

Dodd said that although the FSIS does a good job in keeping meat safe, it was easy for consumers to think the opposite – given the steady stream of warnings about food-borne bacteria in meat that hit the headlines.

"We as Americans tend to expect more from regulatory agencies than we should, so we set ourselves up for disappointment,"​ he said. "Occasionally, regulatory agencies may create unrealistic expectations by the way they communicate with the public.”

Regulatory testing by the FSIS is not designed to directly ensure food safety by testing every package of ground beef at retail, as this would require over three billion tests per year, said the pair. Testing is just one tool that the FSIS uses. Its role is to monitor what other stakeholders are doing to keep food safe.

"As a regulatory agency, the FSIS is monitoring food safety, not necessarily testing it themselves,"​ Dodd said. "I think that's what a lot of us consumers misinterpret. We need to remember that regulatory agencies allocate, not assume, responsibility."

Unclear messages

The research picks out examples where the wording of FSIS documents could easily create a misleading impression and advises they be overhauled in a bid “to accurately and clearly communicate FSIS regulatory activities and abate negative publicity or criticism”.

One instance is in the document“Risk-based Sampling for E. coli O157:H7 in Ground Beef and Beef Trim" -​ that provides an explanation of the body’s assessment and management of the E. coli O157:H7​ risk in ground beef. The study highlights the statement appearing the first page of the document; ‘‘. . . the probability of each establishment being sampled is weighted by FSIS microbiological test results for E. coli O157:H7 and production volume”.

Dodd and Powel add that this could be better stated as ‘‘. . . the probability of each establishment being sampled is partially weighted by FSIS microbiological test results for E. coli O157:H7 and production volume as allowed by limited resources”.

Dodd explained: “The existing wording may imply to some stakeholders that sampling is directly proportional to production volume. Given the current limitations of 12,200 tests per year, proportional sampling would mean that many smaller plants would not be sampled in any given year. This revision can be justified because plants producing over 250,000 lbs per day produce 750 times the volume of smaller plants, yet are allocated less than 3 per cent of FSIS samples.”

Communication equals credibility

The researchers highlight a number of useful facts about the inspection process that the FSIS could clarify with consumers, including that not all foods are recalled because someone was sickened. Dodd said examining how a food recall was initiated was crucial to understanding the risk and whether it was from an outbreak or routine testing. Another is that when a meat recall occurs, the FSIS and industry probably are erring on the side of caution.

The study concludes by saying the regulatory role of the FSIS could be communicated more clearly and that “consumer perception pivots upon risk communication”.

“With improved risk communication strategies, FSIS will be more likely to increase their credibility and consumer trust, especially during times of crisis”, ​it adds.

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