New guidelines to help food industry communicate safety risk

By Chris Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food, Food standards agency

Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published new guidelines
on how it will communicate with both the food industry and the
general public during "food incidents".

A food incident is described as "any event where, based on the information available, there are concerns about actual or suspected threats to the safety or quality of food that could require intervention to protect consumers' interests"​ - meaning essentially contamination of food in the production chain or through environmental pollution. According to the FSA, the new guidelines set out how the agency will work with all those involved in a food incident - including companies, local authorities and trade associations - "to deliver effective communications and best protect public health". ​ There have been more than 5,000 food and feed related incidents since the FSA was set up in 2000, the agency said, most of which had been resolved quickly and efficiently through working together with the industry and with local authorities. But food scares can be devastating for companies, and processors are keen to find the right balance between protecting the public from potentially dangerous products and undermining public confidence in their brand through poor communication. That is why the FSA has worked closely with a panel representing food processors and retailers, as well as independent experts, to draw up a range of food incident guidelines, including the new protocol on communication. According to the FSA, the agency's website and the general media (print, broadcast and web) are "the quickest and most effective methods of alerting the greatest number of people"​ about potential food scares. But while protecting the public using these mass media channels is the top priority of the agency, it has also pledged not to harm the business of food companies by overstating risk. "We will explain in straightforward terms what the risk is, what we know about the affected product, and whether there are gaps in our knowledge,"​ the new guidelines say. "We will be restrained and proportionate in what we say and attempt through our use of language to avoid causing needless concern or worry." "The agency will also strive to be proportionate when giving detailed information about the substance responsible for the incident and will be conscious of the need to avoid giving unnecessary or irrelevant facts about its effects in other contexts." ​ The agency will, however, continue to name the companies concerned by potential food scares, "even those who have sold products on in good faith or were unwitting receivers of affected goods"​ in order to "give people as much information as possible so that they can know who produced the product and where it may have been purchased". ​ Nonetheless, the FSA says it will continue to work with the companies concerned to draw up the information it communicates to the public about the potential food incident. "Whenever possible the agency will let the producer, retailer or importer see the information it intends to make public before it does so," the guidelines state, adding that "draft food alerts are circulated to the relevant companies/local authorities for comments on factual accuracy prior to release". ​ But it adds that "the company and the agency would have been working closely together before the production of any press release and therefore the sign-off process should be reasonably straightforward".​ Furthermore, inking its food scare alerts to the websites of the affected companies will "convey to FSA website visitors that the agency has been working with retailers/manufacturers on publicising a particular incident"​ and give a positive image of the company concerned. However, it is unclear from the guidelines how much of this communication protocol is actually new - the FSA already works closely with companies to help manage risk (both to the public and to firms' reputations) - or how much of an additional burden this is likely to be on companies involved in food incidents. The FSA was unavailable for clarification.

Related topics: Market Trends, Food safety

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