Media foodborne illness outbreak communication needs work, say officials

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Media foodborne illness outbreak communication needs work, say officials

Related tags: Foodborne illness outbreaks, Foodborne illness

Effective media communication can be crucial to prevent the spread of foodborne illness outbreaks and to avoid misinformation, global government officials said at a meeting to discuss lessons learned from recent outbreaks.

Sherri McGarry, FDA senior advisor at the CORE (Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation) Network, led the investigation into listeria in US cantaloupes last year, one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in US history, which killed 30 and caused one miscarriage.

“We need to be fast, but we also need to be right,”​ she said, referring to the damage that can be done to businesses if a recall is unjustified.

Germany’s ministerial director and federal director of food, agriculture and consumer protection, Bernhard Kühnle, agreed that there is a careful balance between protecting the public and protecting industries.

Last year’s deadly European E. coli outbreak – which killed 48 and made thousands ill – was eventually traced to Egyptian fenugreek seeds, but was linked to cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuces before sprouts from the seeds were pinpointed, with huge cost to the European produce industry.

A similar situation occurred in the United States in 2008 when a salmonella outbreak was linked to tomatoes before the FDA found that it had originated in Mexican jalapeno and serrano peppers. By that point, the tomato industry had lost an estimated $100m.

Kühnle said: “Apart from the actual crisis management as such, communication with the media and the public also plays a critical role…On the one hand the public has to be protected, and on the other hand, we must not be too hasty.”

Caused by Al Qaeda?

He said that during the E. coli outbreak information was exchanged in daily conference calls with crisis management teams throughout Germany, and Europe as a whole, but the public – and the media – were looking for answers too.

“We need to make sure we establish trusted scientists to communicate to the media before there is a crisis,”​ Kühnle said. “…The more days the crisis continued the more experts appeared in the media. Someone said it was certainly cucumbers, and someone else said it was raw milk. Someone even said it was caused by Al Qaeda.”

European efforts were further confounded because the outbreak had to be controlled without a positive lab result on any food, as there was no test available at the time for the particular E. coli strain in food.

“An outbreak in France finally meant that the source of the outbreak could be identified with nearly zero doubt,”​ Kühnle said.

Effective messages

McGarry said: “We still need research in the area to try and understand what are effective messages for consumers… Not only do we want to react to outbreaks but we want to prevent them from happening.”

In terms of advice for cantaloupe growers and processors, she said that nothing has changed. Preventive measures still involve proper cooling, cleaning and plant design – and consumer advice was also unchanged.

“We didn’t have end lessons from this that meant we had to change our advice to consumers .This is something that we consider every time there is an outbreak.”

Kühnle added:  “We have learned that prevention and surveillance must focus more strongly on foods of plant origin… Food crises will not stop on the borders of federal states so we need to integrate ourselves.”

The officials were speaking at the recent Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Orlando, Florida.

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