Dr. Richard Raymond is former undersecretary for food safety at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and is now a food safety senior advisor to APCO Worldwide. He says that consumers have lost trust in the food industry as the number of media reports about foodborne illness has increased over the past ten years – even though the number of foodborne illnesses has actually dropped by more than 20% during that time.
He says media reports increased dramatically after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established its PulseNet tool in 1996 to better identify foodborne illness clusters.
“In a lot of ways, PulseNet is our own worst enemy,” he told FoodNavigator-USA. “We don’t get the credit for making things better. Instead we get blasted by congressional hearings and the media.”
The increased coverage is also due to the evolution of the media over the past decade, with shorter news cycles and wider dissemination of recall information on the internet. According to an APCO analysis, media reports of illness-related food recalls have increased 250% in that time. Meanwhile, the increasing prevalence of social media is also influencing public perception.
“Online discussion of food recalls has spiked in social media sites in recent years,” Raymond said. “In the last six months alone, food safety and food recall-related terms produced more than 81,000 mentions on Twitter and personal blog sites.”
He says that better food safety systems should be a good thing for industry and consumers alike, and there have been many advances in recent years, including many technological advancements leading to improved identification and tracking of foodborne pathogens, which in turn leads to more recalls and more foodborne illness victims being reported by the media. However, this can be a catch-22 for industry, he says, as increased recall information may create poor public perception of the industry.
“If there is an outbreak, we are better at identifying it and removing unsafe food from grocery store and pantry shelves. But this may not be fully communicated to the public, which only hears the negative information,” he said.
As for what food companies can do to change this, Raymond says that better communication is crucial.
“They just need to remind people about the safety of the product and the improvements that have been made, and acknowledge that someone got sick…They just need to lead out with, ‘we’re better than we were, but we’re not good enough.’”